EARLIER THIS MONTH, ON A SUNDAY MORNING, the startup world woke up to that rare stripe of news which quietly sends shockwaves reverberating throughout an entire culture of people: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 22 years old, had passed away. The cause of death “appears to be a suicide,” noted a San Francisco police officer who spoke with CNN. A forthcoming coroner’s report will make a final determination. Mr. Zhitomirskiy was one of the four co-founders of Diaspora*, once breathlessly hyped in a May 2010 New York Times article as a “cry to arms” against Facebook, in a story that employed a classic tech narrative: four brilliant young men, on the verge of changing the world, subsisting on ramen and pizza.
Y Combinator’s Hacker News link to the item racked up pages of comments, many devoted to shouting down those who wanted to have a discussion about depression in the technology and startup community, noting it as an inappropriate moment for that topic. One user noted that a breaking news thread announcing Mr. Zhitomirskiy’s death was “a terrible place to have a discussion about ‘the stresses of life … related to tech.’”
Another disagreed: “We don’t talk about suicide in society very well let alone within the startup community. Founders find themselves in extremely stressful situations and living lifestyles that exacerbate the effects of this stress.”
This second comment read in contrast to the first, whose final suggestion on the matter was to “have that discussion inside your head” for the time being, and then go talk about it some other time.
IT’S FRIDAY NIGHT at New York City’s startup workspace-cum-mecca General Assembly, and it’s YouAre.TV founder Josh Weinstein’s 25th birthday. A crowded party with a sufficient supply of pizza and beer warms up in the main hall. Mr. Weinstein, however, is found quietly typing at his desk in the South Wing, isolating him from the Startup Weekend New York kickoff raging outside the door.
As we find a place to sit, a few people regard him with quick back-slaps and Happy Birthdays. Another colleague working nearby is surprised to hear of the occasion, quickly offering the same. Along the way, he nods to a nearby colleague, “Chris,” to accompany us as we search out a quiet place to speak; the unannounced third party is joining, Mr. Weinstein explains, because he—another 25 year-old startup founder—has much to say on the topic, the both of them having experienced some stripe of professional failure and the depression that comes with it.
[“Chris” agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity not because he doesn’t want to publicly speak about depression, but because his startup is trying to avoid press in its early stages.]
Mr. Weinstein and Chris sat with Betabeat in a couch-filled cubicle, and immediately begin firing off insight on depression among their contemporaries with the enthusiasm one would expect to be reserved for a particularly fascinating segment of code.
“I’d be really surprised if you could find a founder who—if you asked them about their emotional state—hasn’t been through depression,” Chris explains. As a computer engineering student working at a startup at a prestigious college, and then as an entrepreneur going it alone after he graduated, he’s experienced in sparring with his own mental health.
“That’s why I asked Chris to come,” Mr. Weinstein explained. “We’ve gone through it at different times. We talked about it; it’s a club. It’s good to have that support network. A lot of people don’t ask for help.”
The World Health Organization cites depression as affecting 121 million people worldwide. The Center for Disease Control estimates one in every ten American adults are suffering from some form of clinical depression. In the 18 to 24-year-old age group, that number goes up to 11.1 percent. To Chris, the startup world is even more susceptible.
“It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when’ it happens,” he sighed. “I’d almost say if they aren’t going through depression, you’re probably not actually pushing hard enough, or taking on enough risk, because that’s just an inherent part of owning something.”
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