Why Start-Up Culture Still Hides Mental Health Struggles

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they picked themselves up and how they hope workplaces can change.

Have you ever walked into an office replete with inspirational quotes everywhere? Whether it’s the cheesy stock posters and mugs so vibrantly mocked in The Office TV shows. I’m thinking, “You miss a hundred percent of the shots you don’t take,” or the more Silicon Valley cool version. Facebook walls were famously painted with COO Sheryl Sandberg’s favorite quote, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The very purpose of the pre-pandemic office environment seemed designed to convince people that they were just a small step away from being superhuman. Yet, if you talk to people who actually work in those offices, you know it’s often just not a mentally healthy or psychologically healthy place to be.

Yeah, there might be a pool table and kombucha in the fridge, but people at all levels of leadership know that admitting they feel depressed, anxious, or scared they’re going to fail is just not okay. Why the disconnect? I feel like, and I’m not alone, the pre-pandemic inspo just got a little out of hand. Side hustles, max productivity, intermittent fasting for excellence, Instagram. I think most of us now know that’s a bunch of crap. How will startup culture, which drives so many trends in leadership, change now?

Will tech leaders feel less pressure to appear perfect in front of investors, staff and the media? Today’s guest and I dive deep into the realities of mental health and startup culture, especially in the high-tech industries. As a journalist at a prestigious publication, my guest has been very open in print about her own mental health struggles, so lots of tech founders call her to share their stories, but they won’t go on the record, at least until they feel they’ve reached a certain level of success. Like, I’m pretty sure Elon Musk doesn’t care a whit what people think about his mental health state, although many journalists love to speculate anyway.

I speak with our guest, Catherine Shu, about her experiences as a young woman who found herself in a psychiatric ward facing authority figures who just wouldn’t take her seriously, her experience as a first-generation American daughter and as a young ambitious person finding her way in tech, journalism, and life. Catherine Shu is a journalist who has been covering the global tech industry since 2012 for TechCrunch. She joins me now.

Oh, Catherine, welcome. I found you by googling you. I’m curious why you chose to write about mental health in the tech industry.

CATHERINE SHU: Well, basically at that point… it was a few years ago and I’ve been covering startups for about, I think, eight or nine years now. When I started back in about 2012 or so, there was definitely still that mindset of like, how do you optimize your productivity? Every time I walked into a startup office or co-working space, there’d be inspirational quotes painted on the walls. All that stuff, productivity hacks, everything. It was always about optimizing your time.

Then I noticed there started to be a shift where people were like, “We have to really start talking about depression in the startup space.” Just from conversations with founders, I could tell it was pretty prevalent. There were a few that opened up to me and they would say like, “Yeah. It’s definitely an environment that isn’t exactly conducive to mental health.” At the same time, it’s not really talked about because you want to put your best face forward, especially if you’ve received funding. I wrote an article basically being like, “We have to talk about depression in tech.”

After that, I had quite a few people reach out to me, so I wrote a couple of follow-up articles about it, which were specifically about founder experiences. I think at that time, all of them, or most of them, wanted to be anonymous. I don’t know if it would change if I wrote other articles like that now. I’m not sure people would be more willing to go on record.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that you said to me when we first talked was you said… and it shocked me to be honest. You said that the mental health discussion hasn’t really evolved over the, I think it’s eight years that you’ve been covering the tech and the startup industry at TechCrunch. That shocked me. Does that shock you?

CATHERINE SHU: I think it does, kind of, and it doesn’t, because the thing is I feel like people, what they’re willing to do right now is push back on this whole, oh, productivity, side hustle, hyper-inspirational, “You could do this if you only worked a little bit harder,” “You could sleep when you’re dead,” mentality.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Or fasted. My favorite is when they have the weird fast, or the weird exercise routines that make them hyper-productive and they write about it. Yeah.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Exactly. Because whenever I see somebody tweet out something on Twitter like, “Oh you could achieve X if only you did Y,” there’s always people who are like… especially if it’s somebody who’s high-profile, there’s going to be people who jump in and say, “Well, first off, work-life balance isn’t an option for people who have families.” There’s class issues, especially I think during the pandemic. There’s education, there’s networking.

There are a whole lot of reasons why it’s not simply like, “Well, if you just get yourself into the right mindset, you can achieve X, Y, Z.” What I’ve seen evolve is that there’s a willingness to push back on just people becoming more productive or using productivity hacks or changing their mindset. What I haven’t seen change necessarily is people be more willing to talk about the mental health toll that working in a startup environment takes.

I think people are still guarded about that and it’s hard for me to compare it to other industries because I’ve basically covered a startup industry for almost a decade now. Yeah. I think definitely people are still guarded.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why? Especially in the startup and tech industry, why are people so guarded?

CATHERINE SHU: I think part of it is because if you’re a startup founder and you’ve raised funding, you’re responsible for the health of your startup. You have a responsibility to your investors. You have a responsibility to the other founders on your team. You have a responsibility to your employees. Then especially if you have competition, too, you don’t want to broadcast any kind of personal weakness. I thought maybe the pandemic would make people open up more about their experiences.

In terms of basically my own interactions with people, the founders who are most willing to talk about mental health are the ones who are working in health tech, specifically mental health tech. Yeah. I think they’re still definitely reasons they might want to shy away until you’ve reached a certain level of success.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right. There’s a fear of vulnerability. There’s a fear that their backers, the financial backers will think that they aren’t as investable maybe?

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. I think definitely, because you do have a lot of responsibility to your investors. There are venture capitalists out there who have been open about their mental health issues and who are probably more personally supportive. Yeah. I think definitely it’s like you’re founding a business, you’re trying to get to the point where maybe you’re making a profit. You have a lot of stakeholders, either financial or otherwise.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: No. I understand that. In a way, it’s almost like you’re investing in a racehorse and you want to make sure the racehorse is in peak performance. I think that on the other hand, that upholds people to such a crazy standard.




MORRA AARONS-MELE: I wanted to ask you specifically… you mentioned health tech. Even from the sheer amount of pitches that I get in my inbox right now, I feel like the area… and it is the pandemic, of telehealth and health tech and mental health apps is just exploding and getting a lot of funding.

CATHERINE SHU: Definitely. Yeah.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can you talk a little bit about what you’re seeing in that space?

CATHERINE SHU: Well, basically what I’m seeing right now in the space is we’ve seen evolution, basically people being like, “Okay. Well, how can you use the phone as a mood tracker to…” as tech has improved you have the whole proliferation of apps like Calm, Headspace are the ones that are based around meditation. Apps are also based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, because those are self-directed journaling or self-directed exercises within an app.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, and it feels optimizing. It’s funny. It feels like if you can track it and log it and get prompted, maybe it’s a little more in control. I don’t know.

CATHERINE SHU: Definitely. One of the major issues I think a lot of apps have is just the user engagement and retention part, which is a question I always ask people whenever they come out with a new app, is like, how do you address that? Because I think a lot of people, they might be motivated to download for example a cognitive behavioral therapy-based self-journaling, or an app, a self-directed exercise when they’re starting to feel low. But if you’re really stressed or anxious, and I noticed from my personal experience, you’re going to stop checking in. You’re not going to be as motivated to check in. Conversely, I know from my own personal experience too, is that when I’m feeling better, when I’m less stressed or anxious I stop checking into them too, because it’s like, I don’t really want to think about my mental health anymore. I’d rather scroll on Instagram or stuff like–

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Exactly. Right.

CATHERINE SHU: I want to look at pretty pictures and I want to listen to music. I don’t want to think about my mental health when I’m feeling better. Yeah. That’s one of the questions I ask that I’ve been interested in looking in. I think what I’ve seen and I think other people who observe the space I’ve seen is that the most effective trackers are the ones that are passive. Like, for example, if you have a smartwatch, you could see, like… I mean, I know if I’m feeling depressed or anxious, my steps will go way down because I’m a lot less motivated to leave the house or go out and do things.

Honestly, for me, that’s just been the easiest way for me to look back in time and be like, “Oh, okay. I was feeling good during this period.” Or, “Oh, well that wasn’t a good spell for me.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I have to ask you, I want you to talk about your own history, but I want to start off by asking you, how does it make you feel when you know that these powerful people that you’re talking about, or people who hope to be powerful, who are just starting out with startups, will only talk to you off the record about their anxiety and depression because they don’t want to be seen as weak? Does that hurt you as someone who has her own mental health challenges? How do you feel about that?

CATHERINE SHU: I think one of the things I was actually thinking about before talking to you is that I still get really anxious before interviews myself all the time. Even if it’s just going to be a 15-minute call and it’s a type of story that I’ve done hundreds of times before, literally, I still get really nervous. One of the things I always remember is that, especially for people who are a very early-stage startup, maybe somebody who’s just raised angel or seed, or even a series A, they’re probably more nervous about talking to me than I am to them.

I know it’s like, for example when I’ve covered startups and for some reason they run into difficulty, I know that’s been the case with… for example, I covered some childcare focused startups in the U.S. and obviously when the lockdown started, that was a really hard time for them. Or founders that I personally like, but for whatever reason, their startups just didn’t take off, which happens more often than not, even if they have a really good idea.

I think from a journalistic perspective, we’re taught to ask hard questions and really drill in, especially for companies that are larger and that do have a big impact or having a social impact, whether good or bad. I feel like sometimes if I could sense somebody is going through a hard time, it can be hard for me to be as critical as I should be. If that makes any sense. I mean, I still ask the questions that I need to, and I [inaudible 00:14:01] just the issues, but definitely, I think am cognizant of trying to do it in a gentle way. You know what I mean?

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s so interesting, right?


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Because I never thought about startup founders as vulnerable until you mentioned that. Well, so tell your own story if you don’t mind.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. I was basically diagnosed with depression. I think I was officially diagnosed when I was 14 or 15, but I had known for some time that there was just something off, you know? Well, I think maybe off is not the best way to put it, but I knew that basically what I was experiencing, mood-wise, wasn’t normal, I think honestly. Like I remember being about 12 years old and I saw on MTV that Kurt Cobain had died and I just remember it was almost like something clicked in my head. I realized there’s depths of sadness or despair or whatever that just aren’t normal.

I think I remember I was following news about his death and there were people who are like, “Well, he was just a selfish, spoiled 20-something.” It was just like, things were getting hard so he just checked out of it. I just remember feeling extremely defensive and having that reaction and realizing, okay at that point I’d been dealing with symptoms of depression and thinking that none of this is normal. Then once I got to high school, my mood started getting… I started struggling with it more and more in terms of both anxiety and depression.

I remember going to my high school counselor and being like, “I think I might have depression.” She basically took out a checklist, an assessment checklist and she read the questions and made me answer each of them. At the end, I remember very clearly she was like, “Yeah. I don’t think you have depression according to this checklist.”


CATHERINE SHU: I was really stunned. I was 14 years old. I didn’t know what to say. I’d like to think that wouldn’t happen now. Things have changed a lot over the past two decades and a half, but it just continued to escalate. I think trying to explain what I was going through to my parents, just trying to explain to people that I was getting to a point where I knew that I needed help. I can’t remember if I was 14 or 15, if it was freshman or sophomore year, I tried to overdose on sleeping pills but midway through I think taking them, I was like, “I don’t want to do this.”

I just remember freaking out. I called my friend and of course she freaked out and she called the police and they sent an ambulance over to my address because she knew where I lived. It didn’t ultimately turn out to be dangerous, but you still have to be put in a hospital for assessment. I spent a week in the pediatric psychiatric ward and then I got put on medication and I also went to therapy.

Then when I went to college, I remember going through this phase where I really just generally believed that I didn’t have depression anymore because I really enjoyed being at college. I enjoyed being an independent. I loved my school, but then 9/11 happened while I was in college and I was in Westchester County at that time. I mean, it was–

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Right outside New York City.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Right outside. I was actually in a commuter town for New York City so I saw a lot of missing posters. It’s funny because I didn’t make the connection then that that might have contributed to my mood over the next few months. I just remember the semester after that, I ended up going into the psychiatric ward again like two times in one semester, because my school basically gave me two options.

They were like, “You could take a leave of absence or you could go to psychiatric hospital and then after that, we had come up with a treatment plan for you. You have to do that if you want to stay in school during the semester.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: It sounds like throughout your journey, you tried to ask the people who were supposedly in charge for help and that they let you down repeatedly.

CATHERINE SHU: I’ve thought about that a lot because this happened when I was a teenager and then it happened when I was 20 and now I’m 39 years old. I’ve really thought about that a lot, about how much of it was just at that time a cultural thing. Just the fact that people weren’t perhaps as aware of how much of those cultural… My parents are very open about it now. I could talk very candidly about depression with them now, but they were still products of the community we grew up in.

I think it’s really hard for a lot of… just to make a generalization, Asian families, especially first-generation, second-generation immigrants, to talk about mental health issues. There have been times when I’ve been extremely angry at my college, for example. A lot of my identity and my sense of self was tied into the classes I went to, my friends there. Looking back, I wish I had taken that leave of absence instead of going to the psychiatric hospitals, because my stays during college were really traumatizing.

I just remember I would say the scariest part of it was when I got in there, they wouldn’t tell me when I could leave. That was by far the scariest part of it. I think it was like… I didn’t feel young back then because I don’t think any 20-year-old sees themselves as younger, vulnerable, but I was. I was 20 and there were people in there who had much more serious problems than I had and who… I think one of the things about being in a mental hospital… I mean the psychiatric ward, was that it made me aware because I just remember the way some of the doctors and nurses treated me.

You could see they definitely had compassion fatigue because I was in assessment with a doctor and I think some residents and he asked me how I was doing. I said, “Well, considering that I would prefer to be almost anywhere but here, I think I’m doing okay.” He said, “Well, I’d better be golfing.”


CATHERINE SHU: I’m like, “Dude, you could leave whenever you want and go golfing. I’m here and nobody’s told me when I can leave. I can’t sign myself out apparently.”


CATHERINE SHU: I just remember just sitting there and staring at him and being like, “Like seriously?” I was so shocked, but at the time, I also realized how much privilege I had because there were people in there who didn’t have the resources my family did, who didn’t have a plan for what they were going to do after they got out of the hospital. For me, I always had my family and I knew that after I got out of the hospital, I’ll go back to school. I had this whole pathway.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I was just curious how your mental health was. Someone asked me recently, a younger person in her first job who was having a really hard time with the unstructured nature of life after school. I was curious for you, when you graduated, and also it’s interesting to me that you chose to work in a field that is anti-authoritarian and anti-institutional, but I’m not a therapist.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. I hadn’t really thought about it that way, but yeah, I realize that it is. It was super, super important for me to have a routine or to just have a pathway set for me, which again was fully privileged because yeah, I went back to college. Then after college, I spent a year interning while applying to graduate school, and then I went to Columbia graduate school of journalism. Then after that, the next step was clear. It was to get an entry-level job, so I started working at the Wall Street Journal online and then I got promoted to–

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s pretty good.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Yeah. I had all that set to me. Then I remember at that point, I met my husband while we were in grad school together and he got offered a job in Taiwan, and so after that I was just like, “Oh you know what? Why don’t I apply, try and see if I could get a scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan?” There were all these different steps for me that I set, you know? Okay. Then I got to Taiwan, studied Chinese. My goal was to at least spend a couple of years working here and it kind of… I mean, I’m still in Taiwan, so obviously things change, but I just remember.

Then I kept setting these goals for myself like, “I’m going to freelance for New York Times.” That’s like our… “I’m going to get a New York Times byline, I’m going to do X, Y, Z.” Then I remember, and then I got to my early 30s and I was just like, “What’s next? Okay. I’m going to have a baby.”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Did you feel like you were doing it because you loved, like… It sounds like the journalism thing was really joyful for you in a way.



CATHERINE SHU: I won’t say it was necessarily joyful all the time, but basically what it gave me was structure.


CATHERINE SHU: Talking to other people too, I think it was always like… one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about reporting is that I am pretty introverted by nature. I have my couple of friends that I’m really close to who are my confidants, but aside from that I keep to myself a lot. It’s always been my way of connecting with people. Yeah. It’s like people who have different goals, who have a different point of view.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Isn’t it that so funny? I was thinking about that too because I have really bad social anxiety and I… picking up the phone. I mean, I’ve said this before on the show, every time before I talk to someone, I basically want to cancel. I don’t want to do it. I get anxious. I get depressed. Then once I’m engaged, it’s wonderful for me. Then I go back into my hole and I’m alone again. I think it’s interesting that people like us often become interviewers, professional sort of. We like to draw people’s stories out. I don’t even know why that is, but we do.

CATHERINE SHU: I think so. Yeah. I think basically, yeah, I have the exact same experience. Before each interview there’s always a part of me, that’s like, “Oh God.” I get stressed out. Then when I’m actually into it, it’s like, it’s actually pretty cool. You’re talking to somebody and chatting with them and engaging with them. Then I think part of what I like about journalism is that you get your notes and you get all of your information, your research, your interviews, your notes, and then you shape it into a cohesive story.

Yeah. I mean, it’s actually still a really stressful process for me, but you end up with this huge jumble of information, right? Then you organize it into a cohesive format for people to read.


CATHERINE SHU: A structure. Yeah. Structure. Exactly.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I get a lot of questions from listeners all around the world about cultural differences on mental health. We touched on this, but I just want to circle back because you’ve lived and worked in Asia now for many years. You grew up in America. What are you seeing change in terms of discussion and openness about mental health and business in Asia, maybe that you’re not seeing in the U.S. or vice versa?

CATHERINE SHU: I think in Taiwan, I think definitely there’s gradually been a shift from depression is something that you treat with medication to people being more open to talk therapy or different forms of support, besides focusing on medication. I’m very grateful. I take medication. I’m very grateful for it, but at the same time, I definitely do not think it should be the only thing that somebody relies on. I’m glad to see that in Taiwan.

I remember when I first started seeking treatment for depression here, I think… I’ve been here for like, 12 years. I remember when I tried to find a doctor 10 years ago, yeah, it was like basically the focus was on, “Here’s SSRI and then here’s a powerful sedative and then here’s some Ambien.” I was just like, “Holy crap. You’re just giving me this?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: There’s always part of you that’s like, “Yeah. I’ll just take pills and it’ll all go away. That’s easier.”

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Exactly. That is… yeah. There was definitely I mean, an element of like, “Woo-hoo, I got my anti-anxiety drugs. Yay.” I mean, yeah, but at the same time, that’s not sustainable or healthy to rely on drugs alone. I think gradually I’ve seen a shift towards… It’s like the discussion that’s happened in the U.S. where you go from a shift to being like, “Well, let’s focus on the brain chemistry part and whether or not drugs are good to just social-cultural issues.” I think in Taiwan it’s a country that’s changed a lot over the past like… Well, yeah, just within my parents’ lifetime or my grandparents’ lifetime.

I think there’s maybe more awareness of, I would say intergenerational trauma and how that informs the way different generations interact with one another because those are all issues that came to the forefront during Taiwan’s presidential election in January. This is a really fun year for me because I’m going to be observing two highly contentious presidential elections, or participate in them.


CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. I think that conversation is now happening. I’m not sure how it is in other Asian countries. I feel like there’s more willingness to talk a bit about it. Well, with the pandemic, I think it’s just really hard to ignore that. The public health crisis part of it also includes mental health in terms of the spells of depression, anxiety I’ve gone through over the past year. Most of my life, whenever I went through those, it felt like a very lonely experience. This year it’s like everybody.

It’s like, when we talk about mental exhaustion or just being burnt out, or even specific things like having nightmares, I would Google it or I’d ask my friends and a lot of people would be experiencing the same thing.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: In your 30s and I guess entering your 40s, how are you thinking about your mental health now?

CATHERINE SHU: I’m one of those people who I am definitely extremely happy not to be in my 20s anymore.


CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. I think in terms of feeling like my early experiences of depression, like yeah, I did feel to sort of an extent that they were mismanaged by the people around me who I did reach out to help. At the same time, at that point, understanding of mental health mood issues… It’s still developing. Then there’s also that combined with just being in your 20s, unsure of yourself and different things that come with being younger to sort of an extent.

Like, yeah, just in my 30s, especially now that I’m 39 so I’m legitimately in my late 30s, I do feel I’m less scared of depression right now, because I remember when I was in my 20s and even in my early 30s, I always felt like there was this ticking time bomb in my head. Like, would I be okay? Would I be the person that I like to see myself as, which is somebody who, yeah, maybe I’m a little bit disorganized and sloppy and a little bit forgetful, but otherwise I have my stuff together and I enjoy life.

I like to go out in general. Or, am I going to be the person who’s like… am I going to be a 20-year-old who is collapsed on the floor of a psychiatric ward, crying? There was always that part of me that was thinking like, “Which is it going to be and when is that going to emerge again?” I was really, really scared for a long time. Yeah. Until like my 30s. I actually really wanted to become a mom, but I was also really scared of what that would mean in terms of mental health.

For me personally, it hasn’t been as scary as I thought it was going to be. Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s just been so much more filled with joy for me than I anticipated. I knew it would be really rewarding, but it’s just I didn’t realize how fun it would be. Also, I don’t know exactly when it went away, but I don’t feel like my head is a ticking time bomb anymore, you know? I mean, there are times definitely, especially over the past year, especially with the pandemic going on and especially in March when I could no longer convince myself that my family in the U.S. was safe.

Yeah. There have been some pretty dark moments over the past year where I’ve asked myself, “Is this just a normal, emotional reaction to an unprecedented global crisis or is this my depression coming back?”

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I know. It’s always that sense of, “Oh gosh.” Also, it sounds like you’ve built resiliency and that’s one of the wonderful things about getting older, I think.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Definitely. I feel like in a way what I went through when I was in my teens and 20s, which was… I mean, I’ve only recently admitted to myself how traumatizing it was. I didn’t want to use the word trauma for a long time because I was always aware that there were other people, including other patients in the psychiatric wards I was in who had it much worse. At the same time, a few years ago I was just like, “That was just really traumatizing.”

It did shape my perception of myself, but in a way now, in my late 30s, I feel like I’ve gotten past the point of being scared to where I’m able to draw on that, to have some sense of resiliency and even nothing lasts forever. That’s good things and bad things. Everything evolves and sometimes you don’t even realize that it’s evolving until you’re able to look back and be like, “Things are better right now.” I mean, they’re not perfect, but they are better.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: They’re better. I want to thank you so much for your work and for your honesty, and for the fact that I found your work and that you talk about it so openly. I really want to recommend to people, especially people who are in tech or in the startup community, to look up Catherine’s writing. Thank you.

CATHERINE SHU: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe, and thanks to Liz Sanchez for her help producing. Thanks to the team at HBR and the studio team who make the audio happen. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and their truths, for you, our listeners, and for our advertisers. Please send me feedback. You can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam. If you love the show, tell your friends or subscribe and leave a review.

From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.

Source link

You May Also Like