The link between entrepreneurship and mental illness is well established. Personal experience has lent me a rather unique insight into the subject, as I have found life as an entrepreneur to be a double edged sword where mental health is concerned: if I’m not very careful it damns me just as easily as it saves me.

I wasn’t always a freelancer.

In fact, I wasn’t always a writer, not professionally at least. 

I was originally an archaeologist.

I studied archaeology and ancient history at A Level, before doing a BA (Hons.) in both subjects, followed by an MA in Celtic Archaeology. I thought throughout my postgrad studies and continued to teach evening adult classes in archaeology after my MA ended. I spent almost two years working as an excavator in corporate archaeology and a summer working in Austria. I published papers in international archaeology journals, and finally went on to win a PhD scholarship to study my favourite topic: Gender Dynamics in Iron Age and Early Medieval Britain.

That’s about the point it tripped me up.

[Tweet theme=”tweet-box-shadow”]In the first year of my PhD I had a total meltdown. It had been coming on for a while, I’d just been ignoring it.[/Tweet]

I fell into a pit of depression so deep it was impossible to claw my way back out. Despite my outward success internally I was a wreck. I was suicidal, and attempted to take my own life more than once. This had been an issue on and off since my early teens. I had been diagnosed with depression when I was sixteen and bulimia at nineteen, but the only attempts to medicate me had made me considerably worse. I’d given up on doctors, I’d given up on myself, and I’d pretty much given up on life. 

At length I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, and so began the long, long road to recovery.

Part of that road was accepting I could no longer function in the world of academia. It was too much pressure, too much stress, and once I was undergoing treatment I found the extremely strong medication I had to take fogged my mind: I simply couldn’t function at that level anymore.

Another part of my journey involved signing on to JSA and enduring the humiliation and frustration of desperately trying to find a job – any job – only to be repeatedly told that I was, of all things, overqualified.

I was, it seemed, unemployable.

So I decided to employ myself. In 2011 I started freelancing and set up my own business. Gradually I gained experience as a copywriter, and in the interim I published several pieces of fiction, including a novel, and a novella. 

I quickly found that life as an entrepreneur suited me very well. It gave me the freedom to work around my illness and my natural creativity and passion for writing fueled my efforts. The more I learned about the entrepreneurial lifestyle the more I came to understand that it was common for individuals with mental illness – not only bipolar, but many other conditions – to end up working for themselves. There is a creative spark that often comes with mental illness (also well-documented), which lends itself to founding, building, and running a business – especially one that revolves around something like writing, which is inherently creative and involves a lot of imagination. 

Working for myself is freeing in so many ways – I can indulge my passions while earning my paycheck; I can achieve wonderful things; I can help far more people by offering my writing gifts (my particular Zone of Genius) to other business women who aren’t as confident or skilled with a pen, or simply don’t have the time to write their own copy; I can work around my illness and balance my work and my health; and I can spread the word about mental health issues and raise awareness through my writing.

Truly it is a dream come true.

But there is a flipside… isn’t there always?

The stresses and strains that come with running a business are numerous and unending. From worries over income and cash-flow, trouble managing accounts, and the myriad of administrative tasks that have to be completed, life as an entrepreneur can be incredibly stressful.

And stress is not good for mental health, regardless of what illness you have, or whether you have an illness at all – even those who are perfectly healthy can crack under the pressures of running a business.

Knowing this, I consulted mental health coach, writer, speaker, and advocate Sharon Chisholm on the best ways to care for your mental health as a female entrepreneur. Here’s what she had to say…

Sharon Chisolm mental health peer coach, writer, speaker and advocateTop Mental Wellness Tips For The Female Entrepreneur

  1. Love yourself – Treat yourself like you would a dear friend. Listen to your own needs, rest when you need to and plan days off and holidays.
  2. Don’t listen to the mind monsters – Tell those little voices in your head to go away when they start telling you that you can’t do something. They are just trying to keep you within your comfort zone.
  3. Trust your gut instinct – Listen to your inner wisdom as it usually knows best. This “knowing” comes from your past experiences.
  4. Sleep is sacred – Getting enough sleep is vital to the management of your mental health. Set yourself a sleep routine and stick to it wherever possible.
  5. Eat for life – It’s easy to fill up on junk food and snacks when you’re busy, but that won’t give you the energy to be consistent in your work and could mean that you are more susceptible to sickness, meaning time away from your business.
  6. Limit the sugar – Our minds and bodies don’t like the roller-coaster of sugar highs and lows.  Sugar is a well-known trigger for emotional upheaval and afternoon energy drops.

Sharon Chisholm is an award-winning coach, mental health advocate, writer and speaker living on the east coast of Australia.She works with female entrepreneurs based all over the world, helping them with a variety of challenges from low confidence and self-esteem, through to mind health issues such as anxiety and depression. Sharon writes for a number of publications and regularly speaks about her own lived experience with mental illness, as well as hosting her own podcast called the “Mental as Anything Podcast”. She also facilitates workshops on mental health in the workplace and advises government bodies on how they can better support the small business owner living with mind health issues.