The Dark Underbelly of Startups – Depression

In 2015, after Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone spoke about depression and mental health, India woke up to a side of health which was earlier denied its existence. Her opening up about mental health issues was important on 2 levels – one, mental health as a field and mental health practitioners saw the daylight and two, she proved that someone who was “successful” and “wealthy” could also be undergoing clinical depression. In a way, it changes the equation of linking occupational success and happiness.

The statistics of people reporting depression is staggering. It is the most frequently diagnosed mental health illness in the country. Before delving into the web that connects depression to startups, it becomes important to understand depression.

Anyone and everyone stand susceptible to depression. Being at the bottom, top and middle of the pyramid have its own quirks and defects. What matters is resilience. People react differently to different situations. Hence the magnitude of the problem or situation is not a deciding factor; the person is. Some people can remain resilient in the face of death of a loved one and others cannot. The same person may not be able to face their boss at work because of a conflict.

Depression doesn’t manifest in a set manner, this again, depends on the person. It’s slightly more complicated than a checking off a list of symptoms. Some people get irritable, some cry all the time, others can sleep a lot or not sleep at all, people overeat or don’t eat at all. Some people even function very well throughout their depression. This is one major reason why depression slips by unnoticed.

And yes, sometimes, medication is necessary. Mental illnesses work in reverse sometimes. The person’s biology can change as a result of circumstances leading to depression. A person’s biology can also be built in a certain way which makes them more inclined to reacting in manners that could lead to depression. Either way, biology is a major cause and consequence of depression, which is usually moderated using medication. Along with therapy, medication increases the chances of getting better.

Startups and stress seem to go hand in hand. Before beginning to write this article, the amount of reading material on the relationship between depression and startups seemed to be in abundance. They all highlight the same thing – yes, there is a higher chance of susceptibility given the nature of work, the competition and a hundred other stressors that anyone working in a startup would be more than aware of. Along with these factors, every article available talks about one important thing – support. Social support and support from the family can be extremely therapeutic.

Wilke, Wilke & Viglione (2015) came up with a very interesting idea of treating the corporate setting like a family. People spend most of their time at their workplace and also face stressors that they then carry home. Family systems theory, in psychology forms the basis for family therapy. This theory talks about the various kinds of dysfunctions that can disrupt a family and cause distress. The research has linked this theory to a corporate setting with a case study that shows the presence of these patterns of dysfunction often observed in dysfunctional families, in the company.

So for example, a child caught in the midst of a fight between parents is not an indication of a functional family. In a corporate setting, on the other hand, a subordinate caught between 2 bosses would be facing a similar problem.

The authors through constant assessments were able to draw a lot of parallels to the patterns of dysfunction usually seen in families and they worked with a small company for 2 years on these issues. At the end of their study, there was an increased level of self-confidence and self-esteem as well as a reduction in friction between members. This is of course, encapsulating 2 years of work in a nutshell.

In a way, even though it is important to separate the personal from the professional, some elements carryover to the workspace involuntarily. In order to build a filter that ensures only the positives flow through, psychology is essential. If this technique can build a familial environment and help reduce stress, perhaps, the prevalence of depression in this sector may actually reduce. Every startup company could probably use a psychologist as a part of their corporate set up, if not to attempt to administer this technique but to be there in case someone wants to reach out for help.

The case study conducted was based on a company with 50 employees, which is why it can be implemented in the startup scenario in the beginning.  The study comes at a crucial time when mental health is gaining attention in India, along with the world of startups.


Author: Deepika Mahesh is pursuing her MA in Applied Psychology at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She loves writing and is a poet at heart.

1 Comment on The Dark Underbelly of Startups – Depression

  1. Deepika, so well aptly pointed out at Start up stage, things don’t come in a platter…sleepless nights are given to take….having a counsellor must help a lot..especially in incubation centres.

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