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Addictions In The Startup World

In the past, we’ve touched on many industries that face addiction hardships. The construction field, for example, has been known to have a higher ratio of painkiller dependencies because of injuries on the job. Interestingly, those who work at Silicon Valley-type startups face these types of issues too; with research showing a tendency toward gambling and alcoholism.


The business site recently touched on this trend, speaking with a former executive from the tech world. Stephen Hays, a venture capitalist tied to several young gaming businesses, explained how the high pressure stakes of the industry drove him to heavy drinking and casino trips that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is an intriguing story and one that deserves attention from anyone looking to get involved in a startup.


The Inc piece also interviewed Michael Freeman, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco’s School of Medicine. Freeman has written several research reports on the mental health of entrepreneurs and startup executives, which showed some distinct ties to addiction.


“Addiction is especially common in the startup world, with its adrenalized culture of high-stakes gambles,” Freeman told the site. “Entrepreneurs are three times more likely to struggle with substance abuse. One reason, I believe, may be the prevalence of preexisting mental health issues among entrepreneurs, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. These conditions worsen with the highs and lows of betting on a startup’s success.”


Indeed, there are certain gambling aspects to investing in emerging companies. Their success or failure can lead to high highs and low lows, much like what you’d feel at a casino. This correlates with substance abuse too, as both tap into the dopamine risk/reward sensations of the brain.


Hays experienced all of those habits, with a particular pull towards alcoholism. As he explained to Inc, his around-the-clock startup life drove him down a dark path of drinking, violence and self destruction. Ultimately, it cost Hays his marriage and his career. But he did eventually find recovery and is now working as an advocate to educate others about the dangers of this high pressure lifestyle.


Hays now lectures others about the dangers of addiction and is still continuing to venture back into the startup space. This time though, he tells Inc that he is putting mental health first and advises all others in the field to do the same.


“Sobriety is challenging,” Hay concluded in his interview with Inc. “I can’t promise anyone that I won’t relapse. That’s not how recovery works. The most I can say is that I’ll focus on sobriety one day at a time and do my best to be a support system for others.”