Musings on Hustle Culture, Worthiness, and Psychological Suffering by a Bipolar Millennial
April 24, 2022, Sofia (Bulgaria)
We Can’t Solve a Problem We’re Not Willing to Have
Mental health struggles are the new normal. It sucks to admit it, yet, it’s cynical and irresponsible to deny it. Intense psychological struggling is a shared human experience. Whether we like it or not, being human is a multidimensional and often messy journey by design. We’re meant to feel all the things, experience adversity, and go through uncertainty.
Unfortunately, even though we’re extremely technologically advanced as a species, we’re completely unprepared to deal with our increasing collective psychological struggles. Which is why we are in the midst of an unprecedented global mental health crisis, which is only going to get more difficult to navigate in the next decades. We need change now.
By the time you finish reading this article, over 10 people will have committed suicide.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every 40 seconds someone in the world takes their own life. That’s over 700,000 suicides every year.
These stats aren’t fun. They’re cringey, uncomfortable, and excruciatingly difficult to discuss publicly in an inclusive and empowering way. So are most things that make humans feel so broken, helpless, and hopeless that about 2,000 of us choose to exit the game of life every day. Without the love and help from my support system during the summer of 2021, I would have done the same.
The Capacity to Experience Emotional Pain Defines Human Nature
There’s a saying in software development: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
Whether it’s genetically predisposed and diagnosable or triggered by environmental factors and unexpected circumstances, mental health struggles and deep emotional pain come with the job description of being human.
Whether our internal earthquakes are sporadic and manageable or chronic and debilitating, we can all benefit from cultivating good mental health hygiene and healthy coping skills. This is something most of us don’t do until shit hits the fan.
Mental Health Self-Care from an Economic and Social Perspective
Over 20,000 mental health apps exist today and experts in the field keep innovating and building various solutions that offer help with self-management, cognition improvement, skills-training, social support, and symptom tracking.
Deloitte Global predicts that global spending on mobile mental health applications will reach close to US$500 million in 2022. Yet, even though we have access to a buffet of options that can to a different extent help us deal with challenging experiences in healthy ways, we still have one fundamental problem to solve.
Most people who need help never seek it and perpetuate their suffering unnecessarily. This is because we don’t know how to talk about mental struggles in a rational and forward-looking context. This is where innovating this space becomes really complicated.
The Path to Change
Unless the people in need and the problem-solvers pair up and create something that solves the right problems in the right sequence, meaningful change isn’t possible.
The stigma around mental health is so powerful that hundreds of millions of people from every demographic, professional occupation, and socio-economic background choose to struggle in silence. Debilitating shame and paralyzing guilt are prevalent among people with mental health issues. The treatment such people receive from society and the public dismissal of psychological struggles as weakness or defectiveness makes getting engulfed by desperation and hopelessness almost inevitable.
Our society is in a silent mental health epidemic and we are completely unprepared to offer the type of support that can actually make a difference.
Building comprehensive apps, developing revolutionary therapeutic approaches, and offering free support groups is crucial for dealing with the overwhelming amount of people in need, who can’t afford professional help regularly.
However, systemic progress isn’t possible until schools, universities, community organizations, and places of employment create environments where mental health issues are treated with acceptance, support, and empathy.
Destigmatizing Mental Health Issues as a Path to Self-empowerment
Opening up about our struggles, prioritizing self-care over toxic hustling, and seeking professional help can have positive ripple effects on how we show up in our relationships, how we parent, how we work, how we navigate moments of crisis, and even how we create value for society. But to get there, we need a continuous, open, honest, and empowering discussion about psychological suffering, the impact of culture on mental health, and strategies for building resilience. A conversation without stigma, shame, and denial.
According to the WHO, the COVID-19 triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Statista.com reports that in early 2022 970 million people globally suffer from any mental health or substance use disorder. People, who struggle in silence behind their smiles, put on a brave face, and even come across as the epitome of success. People like me.
How the Hustle Culture Cripples Our Mental Health
When you soak in hustle culture long enough, you internalize its values. Before you realize how you got there, you believe that the only worthy way of living is to be in eternal motion. Perpetuum mobile — always busy hustling, accomplishing, succeeding, growing, climbing social structures, proving that you’re worthy, that you matter.
Society celebrates and rewards certain attitudes to life, types of behaviors, and values. We are in awe of the successes people earn as a byproduct of numbing behaviors.
When you ignore an underlying problem long enough and instead of initiating a healing process, you distract yourself by getting fully dedicated to a project of any kind, you can accomplish pretty impressive things.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, many impressive innovations and social advancements were brought into existence by people, who numbed intense and difficult emotions and experiences with unshakeable vigor and dedication to their area of curiosity and expertise.
Numbing Pain Is Like Hitting Snooze When You're Already Late
We numb. Some of us do it with food, some do it with alcohol or drugs, some do it with exercise, others masturbate, play video games, or shop compulsively. And then there are the numbing behaviors camouflaged as striving for excellence. Some of the most celebrated numbing behaviors include workaholism and toxic hustling. We work like crazy, earn external validation, and make tons of money. Which is what I did for 5 years. I kept leveling up. Or so I thought.
All Aboard the Rat Race Train to Hell
I spent my 20s grinding. Pop culture, the rat race, and social conditioning taught me that ambitious young people with hopes for a bright future must spend their youth working themselves to the bone. Which is what millions of people do. Which is what I did until 2017.
I was the textbook definition of a workaholic. Addicted to external validation and social acceptance, I got high on working longer hours than almost everyone I knew. I pushed myself to the edge of my limits. Self-care felt like an indulgence I only deserved when I’d earned it. Not knowing that I have a dormant mental illness, I kept doing as much as I could to impress people I didn’t care about. Months-long stretches of 17-hour workdays without days off made me proud. And I did it over and over again. When I finally got the success I’d yearned for since high school, I realized that success is something nobody can (or should) define for you.
What makes you look successful doesn’t always make you feel successful. Unless you think that losing a baby, suffering burnout, having repeated panic attacks, and experiencing multiple psychosomatic symptoms that a dozen doctors can’t diagnose is a price you’re willing to pay for success.
My LinkedIn bio introduced me as a TEDx speaker, author, Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneur, smell-blind food designer, and NFT artist. People respected, celebrated, and even envied my success. I curated how I showed up in the world, hid everything that didn’t fit in, and wore my socially-acceptable labels as badges of honor. Until my psychological struggles were no longer something I could sweep under the rug and power through.
For months I was plagued by soul-crushing, gut-wrenching self-hatred, which made me contemplate suicide repeatedly. I could barely verbalize my inner experiences. I could barely talk. I withdrew from the world and became unable to support myself financially. I saw no hope, no future, no escape from the nightmare that my life had become.
Therapy, exercise, sleep, rest, and art saved me.
I started learning how to turn my pain into power and channel my energy into something empowering. I had heard about NFTs from an episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. Several months into my therapy, I had the crazy idea to start selling the drawings I created while recovering from depression as NFTs. It worked.
I sold over 75% of my genesis NFT collection on OpenSea – Pain to Power and started supporting myself with eth I had made by selling abstract psychedelic doodles about mental illness.
But when things were dark, they were really dark.
After seeking help from multiple psychologists and psychiatrists, I finally got an answer. Although there’s still no consensus whether I have bipolar disorder type 2, borderline personality disorder, or both, I finally had to accept that I have mental illness. Something that’s much more prevalent than most of us realize. According to Mental Health America, 19.86% of adults are experiencing a mental illness. That’s almost 50 million Americans.
The Silent Epidemic
From the World Health Organization (WHO) website:
In recent years, there has been increasing acknowledgement of the important role mental health plays in achieving global development goals, as illustrated by the inclusion of mental health in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. People with severe mental health conditions die prematurely — as much as two decades early — due to preventable physical conditions.
Despite progress in some countries, people with mental health conditions often experience severe human rights violations, discrimination, and stigma.
Where Should We Begin
We treat people with mental health struggles as if they are broken. As if they have the plague. As if they are defective. The truth is that we’re all broken somehow. To different extents and in different ways. But we’re all at least a little broken.
Nobody finishes the game of life without some wounds and bruising. In fact, our journey is a lot about healing what gets broken along the way. And healing is not an easy or enjoyable process. It requires courage, vulnerability, discipline, consistency, and support. With or without a diagnosis, learning to take care of our mental health is an act of maturity and self-empowerment. It can help us overcome adversity and thrive in uncertainty. It can help us save our future.
Even though debilitating mental illness makes millions of people unable to function independently, for many people like me mental health struggles don’t have to be a life sentence — as long as we have access to support and accountability that help us deal with our challenges in an empowered way. And without an exception, it all begins with multiple, cross-cultural, cross-industry, open, honest, and almost certainly painful, scary, and difficult conversations.
My favorite quote by Tim Ferriss – OG human guinea pig, angel investor, one of the most important figures in the ongoing Renaissance of psychedelic-assisted therapies, podcast host, author, and one of my favorite human beings, a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
So, it’s time to talk.
How to Help (Ourselves)?
The severity of my mental health struggles over the last years has made me unable to support myself financially. Without the emotional and financial support of my amazing partner and my family over the last 5 years, I would be on the streets.
Seeking help from mental health professionals has saved my life. And it’s been expensive AF. Consistently getting mental health support is vital for how I function. But not everyone is as lucky and has the privilege that I do.
If people like me with access to resources struggle to cultivate stability and be independent, what about the hundreds of millions of people all over the planet who can’t afford professional therapy and don’t get financial support?
The only way to do damage control while it’s still not too late is to innovate on several levels simultaneously. On one hand, we need more mental health professionals and technology people (with AI, Web2, and Web3 expertise) to team up and design innovative solutions that enable people to take consistent care of their mental health at an affordable price.
For instance – building a blockchain-based creative tool for mental health self-care that allows people to turn their pain into power by creating and selling therapeutic art as NFTs. This is the concept behind alterEGO – an early-stage social enterprise in the healthtech space founded by my former therapist Olesya Yampolska (a Ukrainian psychotherapist, psychiatrist, and neuropathologist with over 15 years of international experience). I was briefly involved in the earliest stages of the project and am praying that it will find the funding it needs to turn from a concept into a workable solution accessible to millions of people in need globally.
But in order to take advantage of innovations and creative solutions, we need to initiate and facilitate multiple conversations between all kinds of stakeholders. Our society needs to get comfortable with talking about mental health struggles and we need to learn how to ask for help. And the only way this can happen is as a byproduct of social acceptance and normalization of the issue. Which is why influencers and celebrities from all industries and domains need to start discussing mental health self-care, healthy coping skills, and dealing with adversity in empowered ways.
Mental health struggles are the new normal. They will have an impact on our future. We might as well learn how to survive and even thrive with them.
Raising Awareness and Setting the Tone
My work as a mental health educator is focused on leading difficult conversations about uncomfortable subjects in an inclusive and empowering way.
I facilitate open discussions and interactive creative experiences designed to raise awareness about mental health self-care among people in school, university, and work environments.
I regularly speak pro bono to students around the globe about mental health struggles and cultivating resilience.
Book a free meeting to discuss how I can bring value to your organization.