Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and the Vulnerability of Creative Entrepreneurs to Mental Illness

by Isabel Lamont and Baruni Sharma

The other week, the world was devastated with the news of fashion designer and creative entrepreneur Kate Spade’s passing. Only three days later, we found out that another creative entrepreneur, renowned chef and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, had also died. And what is even more devastating is that both of these deaths were caused by suicide.

What puts creative entrepreneurs at such a high risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses? At first glance, it seems as though these two individuals had it all: they were famous, successful, and had made meaningful impacts on countless people around the world. Yet, while on paper they appeared to live a picture-perfect life, the reality of a creative entrepreneur is wildly different from what the public sees, and the reality of a person with depression is vastly different from what any other person sees.

The Unique Journey of a Creative Entrepreneur

The journey of a creative entrepreneur is unique to that of any other field. While many entrepreneurs strive to develop something to better the world, as a creative entrepreneur you do this in a way that is intrinsically connected to yourself– through your craft. A regular entrepreneur has a vision, but the creative entrepreneur possesses a unique artistic vision inseparable from their own personality and character. Art is an expression of the self– it is one of the most vulnerable things someone can put out into the world. This is the difference between creative entrepreneurs and the rest: while a typical entrepreneur can remove themself from the product to a certain degree, creative entrepreneurs simply cannot. You are offering a part of yourself to the world, which makes the highs and lows of your journey far more extreme.

Courtesy of The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/05/fashion/kate-spade-dead.html

And that’s the thing about being an entrepreneur: the nature of the profession calls for a rollercoaster ride that doesn’t seem to end. It’s incredibly exciting, but also painfully unstable at times. The side most people don’t see of entrepreneurship is that you are constantly pitching your vision to just about everyone, from friends to major companies. And you are constantly getting rejected.

When someone enthusiastically hops on board with your vision, it gives you an insurmountable feeling of joy and acceptance. But when those rejections start coming in, it creates a deep cut. When creative entrepreneurs experience rejection, it is so much more than a rejection of vision– it is a rejection of the self. And that’s an extreme emotion to experience time and time again. It eventually will wear you down.

Mental Health Research Shows Creatives are at Higher Risk

A study published by the Felix Post in 1996 suggested that most creative personalities around the world had more distinguishable personality traits and problems with substance abuse than the general population. The prevalence of mental disorders, particularly depression, are alarmingly common amongst famous personalities in the creative arts fields. It is, however, debatable whether the depression is a cause or an effect of such creativity.

Anthony Bourdain, courtesy of NBC News.

It has been commonly said that, in order to perform or create, one must feel. A writer, a painter and an actor alike must have felt some sort of pain to project their emotions onto their work. But even further, the underappreciation of such creative geniuses can be a major cause of depression, and thereafter, suicide; which we have seen even centuries before.

Depressive disorders, especially since the 1960’s, have been largely ignored or misdiagnosed. Those with depression are usually given negative labels, such as lazy or dramatic, and proper care is rarely given to these people. The lack of attention given to mental health has been a cause of an alarmingly high number of suicides all over the world.

The aforementioned study also highlights a higher prevalence of bipolar disorder amongst poets than other playwrights and writers. However, poets were otherwise least affected by other common problems such as alcoholism, depression,and other conflicts in personal life. In another study by a Swedish group of researchers from the Karolinska Institute found that persons in the creative arts field such as dancers, photographers and authors were 8% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the average population. Writers, in fact, were 50% more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Furthermore, men in the creative arts fields are less exposed to depression and other mental illnesses than women in the same fields.

Another very vulnerable group of people are those who have had the courage to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurs, due to the consistent rejection and failure in the initial months of their business, are found more susceptible to giving in to the thought of commiting suicide. To exacerbate these situations, it is also harder for entrepreneurs to ask for help in fear of hearing the “I told you so’s”. It was only after Brad Feld, an established entrepreneur, started talking about the shame associated with his depression, did a conversation start revolving around entrepreneurial mental health.

Ultimately, while research reveals the higher association of mental illness with both creatives and entrepreneurs, the effect that working in a field that is both entrepreneurial and creative has on an individual is compounded.

How Do We Create a Better Future for Creative Entrepreneurs?

I wish that the answer was as simple as suggesting a diet change, or telling people to exercise, or something like practicing mindfulness. I wish it was even as simple as checking in on your friends and loved ones, as we have been reminded to do incessantly these past couple of weeks. Sadly, it’s not as straightforward as that. Because the truth is, depression is such a serious disease, and while these aforementioned things may alleviate someone’s struggle or symptoms, in order for things to get better, changes need to happen at a much larger scale.

First, there needs to be more mental health professionals working with creative entrepreneurs, and giving them the help that they specifically need. This means that there needs to be an increase in therapists and psychologists who specialize in mental health for creatives. Even further, these specialists should be asking creative entrepreneurs what it is they specifically need or struggle with, and coming up with creative solutions to help them.

Also, we unfortunately live in a world where how much you produce is considered the most important thing about you. Especially with creative entrepreneurs, and even more so when they become widely successful, the pressure to produce increases. They are told that if they take time to recuperate that they will lose out on major sales. Especially for creative entrepreneurs, where their brand is so interconnected with themselves, they feel as though their work is their entire life. Taking the time to heal is absolutely crucial, especially as a creative entrepreneur. If you experience burn out, your creativity will fall and your mental health with suffer. For business owners and business coaches, understanding the need for these mental health breaks is necessary. Taking care of your health is more important than any profit or gain, and this is constantly ignored in the business world. Creatives also tend to be more emotionally sensitive people, which makes them more prone to creative and emotional burnout. If you are someone who works with creative individuals, I urge that you take this into consideration, because you never know what someone is going through. And if you are a creative person yourself, or someone who is personally struggling with your mental health, I strongly encourage you to take as much time and space that you need to heal, because your health is far more valuable than your brand or your art.

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