The co-founder of one of Australia’s emerging tech startup success stories Unlockd has announced he will be stepping down from his role as chief executive to focus on his mental health, prompting calls for more to be done to address the stigma against mental health issues in the startup space.
In an open letter on Medium, Unlockd chief executive Matt Berriman outlined why he will be stepping into an executive director role at his startup, effective immediately. Unlockd recently posted an annual recurring revenue run rate of $20 million, and raised $30.8 million from investors last year.
“It has not been an easy journey and as many of my fellow founders can attest to, it’s required me to pour blood, sweat & tears (and all of my money) into the business. Throughout the journey I began to experience symptoms, which I attributed for far too long to stress, lack of sleep and the start-up roller-coaster,” Berriman wrote.
“What I did not know at the time was I was fighting a battle with bi-polar disorder.”
Berriman outlined the continuous treatment he has undergone over the past 15 months and how this led him to make the decision to prioritise his health over Unlockd by moving into a role that allows him to still influence “the growth and future of the business”, but also give him enough space to focus on his wellbeing.
One of the startup’s first investors, advisors, and recently its chief operating officer, Jane Martino will move into the chief executive role, which Berriman says leaves him in “total confidence and faith of her succeeding me”.
“I will work closely with her in my new role to continue to drive the business and its success well into the future,” Berriman said.
“This has been an agonising decision professionally and personally, especially knowing the public nature of our business and those that surround it.”
Mental illness “most misunderstood” epidemic of generation
Berriman also touched briefly on how the news of him stepping down might be received in the startup community, commenting that he was sure it would “evoke various reactions”. But he said sharing of his journey is an effort to encourage more discussion and awareness around mental health issues.
“Mental illness continues to be one of the most misunderstood and hidden epidemics of our generation,” Berriman wrote.
“Hopefully in some incremental way it helps the community better understand that mental illness — which affects one in five people — doesn’t discriminate, whether you are a professional sports person, high flying executive, small business owner, employee working 9–5 at the local butcher or a parent at home with the kids … And nor does it debilitate someone’s ability to achieve their goals.”
Speaking to StartupSmart, Jay Spence — founder of Uprise, a business-focused online mental health support platform — said Berriman’s apparent apprehension as to how his announcement would be received is understandable given the level of stigma that still exists around mental health.
Spence says many people still don’t understand mental health issues and how they can manifest themselves and affect people; some are quick to jump to extreme perceptions, he says, adding that he sees common comparisons of all mental health issues to chronic mental illnesses such psychosis.
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“Mental illness is not categorical, it’s a continuum. It’s normal for all of us to float down that continuum at some point, and at least half of us will meet the criteria for mental illness at some stage,” he says.
“So if half of us or more will experience mental health issues, it challenges the concept of what’s normal and if mental illness is starting to be considered normal.”
And though the negative perception is a universal issue, according to Spence, the culture of the startup scene amplifies it, with constant talk of hard work and “crushing it” making overcoming the negative connotations even harder.
“The startup success metric of being this great, successful person, and all the astronomical things startup founders aspire to does set people up to think that if a founder’s not there or struggling with mental health issues, what’s going on with the company?” he says.
Even the use of the word ‘illness’ attaches an unnecessary stigma to mental health, Spence says.
The way to push the needle on mental health discussions is to have it considered on the same level as physical health, says Spence, which can help employees and employers get a “simpler picture” on the issue.
“When someone walks in and says they’re battling cancer, they receive an empathic and concerned response,” he says.
“But if they walked in and say they have bipolar, people clam up. And they’re not clamming up because bipolar is some horrendous thing, they just don’t know what it is.”
More education is the solution, which Spence says plays double duty in educating founders about their own susceptibility to things like stress, while also informing them on how they can better support their employees and fellow founders.