Building a Business Alongside Mental Health Struggles - 5 Business Owners Share Their Stories

Back in the spring of 2018 I started to have regular panic attacks. To cut a long story short, they got worse over the following few months and I found myself in a particularly dark place, struggling with my mental health.

The nasty voice in my head told me I was useless, lazy, pathetic. Like a song playing on repeat it would say, what’s the point anyway, you’ve got no hope of building a business and pursuing the self-employment dream in your state.

Depression is a total shithead like that.

But I don’t look back on that experience negatively at all, although it was like living through hell at the time it taught me some seriously valuable lessons.

Building a business alongside mental health struggles - 5 business owners tell their story | Josephine Brooks

If you’re struggling with your mental health right now and you dream of building a business and creating the lifestyle you long for, grab yourself a cuppa because I’ve got some really wise words to share with you this week.

In honour of Mental Health Awareness Week I’ve teamed up with Karen, Jen, Kathryn and Anna to share our stories about how we’ve built businesses whilst also struggling with our mental health. Our hope is that by sharing our stories we can encourage and reassure you that YOU CAN do magical things, even when you’re struggling with a mental illness.

Karen Arthur - Fashion designer

Fashion Designer | Karen Arthur

What challenges have you experienced with your mental health and how has it affected you and your business in the past?

Well! How long have you got? Let’s get straight into it. A diagnosis of anxiety and depression in 2015 meant that I lost all interest in creating anything! Bit of a blow as I had just left my teaching career (28 years) and was bracing myself for the freedom of freelance life! Oh how wrong I was! I didn’t factor in how difficult moving from perceived status and a regular salary to, frankly, freefall, would be for me. It was a LOT. And then, not to be left out, Menopause decided to show up. Fast forward through a ton of therapy, mindful meditation, developing a morning yoga type routine and some patience with my journey and here I am four years later, much healthier AND wiser. My business stood still for a good 18 months whilst I tried to figure out WTF I was doing and how I wanted to live the rest of my life. This is also when I discovered that making conscious clothing choices could really lift my mood and help me leave the house - Wear Your Happy. Nowadays I’m MUCH kinder to me. When my mental health takes a dip - it might be social anxiety or a low mood - I am confident that the next day will be better. So I either sit with it and swerve my plans or channel my best Wear Your Happy and off I go! 

What have been the biggest learnings you’ve taken from struggling with your mental health and running a business at the same time?

I’ve learned that I put the most pressure on myself so if I can’t fulfil something because I’m not feeling great its perfectly ok. My imaginary critics are just that, imaginary. I MADE THEM UP. So I’ve learned to give myself a break. Or I am trying to learn anyway! I'm also much better at saying something to a friend or one of my (grown) daughters . When I was depressed I honestly thought I couldn’t admit it to anyone. I thought I was the only person. Sounds weird now I'm typing this because OBviously now I know different. But when you’re IN it, it’s hard to see a way out (wood and trees, you know?) And you don’t want to burden anyone. And theres that whole ‘ gotta be the  strong black woman’ nonsense going on. Anyway I learned that there's more strength in reaching out and there's no shame in the game (yes I said that).

What pointers do you have for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health right now, alongside running their own business?

Theres no one thing I’d say but I can say what works for me. Write stuff down. Write it out. Outsource the stuff that gives you the biggest anxiety (tax return anyone?). I have an Admin Monday so all the stuff (most admin always takes longer than you allocate, I find) I have been procrastinating about gets done on one day…in a cafe…often with cake. That's the other thing. Celebrate your wins outwardly. As creatives/small business owners, we make boss moves everyday but because its often just us we forget to celebrate how blimming AWESOME we are. Not everyone can be a boss you know! Own that shit! Also I now take Sundays off. Like, the WHOLE DAMN DAY. I’m gagging to look at emails but because I’ve told myself ’NO' it means that hashtag Admin Monday is almost exciting! (I said almost. Calm it, Kermit). 

Finally, be gentle with you. You’re doing the best you can with what you have at the time. No problem is insurmountable. Not one. You’ve really got this.

Karen’s Website | Instagram

Jen Carrington - Creative Coach

Jen Carrington | Creative Coach

What challenges have you experienced with your mental health and how has it affected you and your business in the past?

I've lived with mental health struggles for as long as I can remember, and I actually started my business on the other side of a mental health breakdown in my early 20's when I was out of work and realised I really wanted to be able to build a career on my own terms so I could prioritise taking care of my mental health each day too. So in many ways my business and my mental health journey is very intertwined, and as my business has grown I have grown in my recovery too. My business has given me the space and stability I've needed to truly prioritise my mental wellbeing and build a life that works for me, and for that I will always be grateful. Not to say that there aren't hard moments at times, when a depressive episode eats away at my creativity or when my anxiety clouds my ability to feel stable and safe, but I've learned to recognise my triggers better now and have left enough space in my life to be able to deal with those hard moments along the way too. 

What have been the biggest learnings you’ve taken from struggling with your mental health and running a business at the same time?

That I'm so much more capable than I ever thought I could be. That prioritising my mental health has to come first, as without that my business has no chance of thriving. That living with mental health illness doesn't mean that you're not a wildly capable human being, it just means you sometimes have to find a different path that works better for you. And often the struggles we've faced and overcome can give our work so much more depth too. Because when you've faced your own personal rock bottom nothing is ever scarier than that, so you have a secret hidden superpower of quiet strength that you can tap into in your business too. 

What pointers do you have for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health right now, alongside running their own business?

Build your business to work for you. If you know your mental health needs lots of white space throughout the week, build a business that can give that to you. Don't believe the lie that you're broken beyond repair, that having a mind that works a little differently is a sign of weakness. Everything you've survived and overcome to get to this moment means you're already capable of so much more than you ever thought possible. Be gentle on yourself, give yourself whatever you need to thrive, and take your business at whatever pace works best for you. Be kinder to yourself than you think you deserve, and reach out for support when you need it to, too. There are people in this world who love you and you never have to go through this alone. 

Jen’s Website | Instagram

Kathryn Ho - Artist & Coach

Kathryn Ho | Artist & Coach

What challenges have you experienced with your mental health and how has it affected you and your business in the past? 

My anxiety started just before going to university, and depression followed fairly soon after. Unfortunately it became so disruptive that I had to leave my studies, and I spent a few years recovering before I could go back and finish my degree. I have thankfully never found myself in such a dark place since then, but I have also dealt with regular low periods, particularly during winter. 

A few years ago my symptoms of anxiety and depression started to worsen again, and I went back to therapy. However, I also realised that I wanted to change what I was doing in my life, and this eventually led to the start of my business. I didn’t know anything other than I wanted to be creative, and that I needed to build something for myself. I spent a lot of time figuring out what that looks like, and I’m still in the beginning phases of my business.

In my case, I feel that starting a business has been a sort of catalyst for my mental health improving. I spent a lot of time working out my values and what I wanted in my life, and this helped to inform both my business and vision for the future. This work also made me realise that I needed to be more proactive in how I take care of my mental health, and now I’m quite deliberate in how I manage this. It has also definitely made winters easier, knowing I’m working towards a life that looks more like what I want. 

What have been the biggest learnings you’ve taken from struggling with your mental health and running a business at the same time? 

When I was severely depressed and trying to get better, it felt like I was standing on one side of a canyon, knowing I had to get to the other side. I couldn’t imagine any way across. Yet slowly, month by month, I did indeed move across - even if I couldn’t explain how. While starting my business didn’t feel quite so daunting, in some ways it also felt sort of similar. I had no idea what I wanted to do; I just knew I had to do something to move forwards. You don’t know how long it’s going to take, or what your journey is going to look like, but I know that I have the strength and resilience to do this. If I can work my way through depression, I can work my way through this business. 

I also believe in the strength of the relationship between my health and my business. My well-being is enhanced by my business, and my business needs me to be healthy. Although we rarely make the conscious decision to put health at the bottom of the priority list, it’s easy to see how it slips down there, particularly if you have limited time for your business. And while it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, my health is always at the forefront of my mind when I’m making decisions on how to spend my time. Because if my health ever deteriorated to how it once was, there’s no way I could run this business anyway.

What pointers do you have for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health right now, alongside running their own business? 

I know this is easier said that done, but keep reaching out for the support you need at this time in your life. That support will look different for everyone, and it doesn’t always need to come in the form of a professional therapist. Running a business can feel isolating in itself, let alone when you face health challenges, so make time to see and speak with other supportive humans. 

I’d also say that while therapy and counselling are incredibly useful for recovery, they're not the full story when it comes to managing your mental health. Our thinking patterns are deeply ingrained, and it takes time and practice to change that. For me, a regular practice of mindfulness has made a huge difference to how I manage my mental health. When running a business there are so many things to think about, and it’s natural to let our thoughts go whirring. But focusing our full attention on the experience of being in the moment can help us stop that spiralling into anxiety.

Practising mindfulness doesn’t come naturally to me at all, which is why I'm quite intentional about working it into my life! I would recommend the book The Mindful Way Through Depression as a great introduction. It explains how we get caught in a cycle of negative thinking patterns, and how mindfulness can help break that cycle. It also includes many practical exercises to build it into your daily life. I’ve found that practising mindfulness has really helped me let go of my desire to control everything, meaning I feel less stressed and also more creative in my work.

Take the time you need, because that’s how long it takes. If the choice is to move slowly or not at all, choose slowly. You won’t always notice it, but you are getting to the place you need to be. Maintaining your health is a regular practice. You are worth it. 

Kathryn’s Website | Instagram

Anna Considine - Photographer

Anna Considine | Photographer

What challenges have you experienced with your mental health and how has it affected you and your business in the past?

The hustle mentality was at its peak when I started in September 2016, and I’d heard no stories to describe the dangers of chaining myself to my desk and throwing every hour I had at my work. The more I worked, the less I slept at night, before my stress levels spiralled out of my control… After weeks of increasing insomnia I reached my breaking point in April of the following year, when delusional thinking and hallucinations took hold. It was three months before I could pick up my work at all, and another three until I could work full-time once more.

What have been the biggest learnings you’ve taken from struggling with your mental health and running a business at the same time?

I learned the hard way that a sustainable business is one that supports not just my income, but my health too. Although the experience gave me a sense of courage, strength and gratitude that I couldn’t have felt otherwise, it’s left me vulnerable in a way I never was before… I know now I can’t work evenings; I know now I can’t work weekends; I know now that I need to switch off fully to separate my business and my life, for the sake of my mental wellbeing.

What pointers do you have for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health right now, alongside running their own business?

If you are suffering from more than a week of insomnia, head to your GP and talk things through. Never be afraid to ask for help before you think you are “allowed” to; the further the snowball of your health slides downhill, the harder and heavier it will be to push back up… and if you do find yourself diagnosed with a condition as severe as psychosis, remember you are loved and loving, and have done nothing wrong to deserve an illness you cannot see. There is absolutely no shame in being unwell, and every day, every act, every moment while struggling is an achievement you should be deeply and incredibly proud of… and I am proud of you too.

Anna’s Website | Instagram

Me! Josephine Brooks

Josephine Brooks

What challenges have you experienced with your mental health and how has it affected you and your business in the past?

My anxiety all bubbled up and erupted when I was in France for a long weekend in the spring of 2018. Having panic attacks isn't the sort of thing you’d associate with being on holiday, but previous to that weekend away I had been working all hours to get my new website live, as well as working my part-time 9-5. I realise now, that I was putting far too much pressure on myself and not giving a second thought to self-care.

At the time I had no idea what a panic attack was and it was really frightening. I felt totally out of control of my own body and over the following weeks and months my symptoms got worse. I found myself unable to do the normal everyday things I’d usually do. Every commute to work, every wedding and social gathering led to panic-attacks-ville. I also felt so desperately low and was struggling to sleep.

After a couple of months of my anxiety and depression symptoms getting worse and after several trips to the doctor's, I was eventually signed off work for a month. I was side-hustling at the time so this meant not doing anything in my business while I was signed off work, which terrified me. But that time out was exactly what I needed (combined with going onto medication).

Naively, I thought that my mental health struggles would go away after a while but they haven’t and although my mental health is in a much better place now, I still have to be conscious of managing my anxiety every day. On a positive note though, I have it to thank for finally taking the leap with my business and helping me create a lifestyle that’s slower and much more intentional.

What have been the biggest learnings you’ve taken from struggling with your mental health and running a business at the same time?

Building a business and productivity in general is about stripping things back to what’s important. I constantly ask myself, what tasks are making the biggest, most positive impact in my business? And I try to just focus on those tasks.  I learned that you don’t have to do all-the-things, it’s possible to grow a business by doing less and just focussing on what really matters. And in fact that’s what my philosophy is centred around now, in how I run my business and in the mentoring work I do.

What pointers do you have for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health right now, alongside running their own business?

Be kind to yourself, take that break you so desperately need. Find the things that will help you create a healthier headspace. For me that was walking everyday, meditating in the mornings, taking up knitting and accepting that I had a lot less energy than usual. When I was struggling with regular panic attacks you could quite often find me on the sofa reading trashy magazines or just staring into space because it's all I had the energy for. Try not to  beat yourself up for being ‘lazy’ or ‘useless’ (both things that my inner critic was shouting at me at the time).

Listen to your body and respect what it’s trying to tell you. This is something I learned the hard way. I pushed all of the subtle messages my body was giving me, until it all erupted in a series of panic attacks which resulted in 4 months of feeling very low and struggling to function as I usually would in the day-to-day. Now I’m so aware that I don’t want it to get to that stage again that I listen to, and act on what my body’s telling me a lot more consciously. It’s something that takes a bit of practice but I’ve found journalling really helps with this.

If you’d like to follow me, here’s where you can find me on Instagram

To quote Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game which I happened to watch last night, “Sometimes it’s the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Having a mental illness doesn’t make you ‘weak’ and it doesn’t make you any less capable. Yes, you’re going to have to find YOUR own unique way of doing things, yes, you’re going to need to create a degree of flexibility in your work so that you can put yourself first, but often those very reasons can be the catalyst behind some of the most creative and inspiring businesses, as the incredible women featured in this post go to prove.

  • I also interviewed Alice Benham for this week’s episode of my podcast all about her experience with depression whilst growing her business. If you need a little more encouragement that you’ve got this, despite your mental health struggles, I really recommend listening to Episode 42 of On The Make; Building a Business Alongside Depression.

5 women who built their business alongside mental health struggles | Josephine Brooks