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Learning through dark moments

Pete Neal, owner of Neal Brothers, a snack company he runs with his brother Chris, opens up about his mental health journey. He talks about how he keeps his mental health in check and offers some advice to entrepreneurs.

5-minute read

This story discusses thoughts of suicide. Only read it if it’s the right time for you. Call the new three-digit national phone number, 9-8-8, for immediate, 24/7 support.

Mental health and entrepreneurship are very much intertwined. My bipolar disease, with its explosive, manic high energy, has fueled me and enabled me to take risks.

But there are the lows.

In the spring of 2019, a friend of mine took her life in the house next to ours. She was smart, strong, and full of energy—her death made no sense to me. A few months later, I suffered a business loss that was tough to endure. It was a cannabis-related company that I’d spent a year building. That same year, we lost an important brand that took us 18 years to build.

I sunk into a deep, suicidal depression that lasted for five months and took a severe toll on my wife and three daughters. And more recently, after another episode, I ended up in the hospital.

Believe it. It’s real.

There I was in the psychiatric inpatient unit, a psychiatrist interviewing me. It became immediately apparent to him that I had bipolar disease and ADHD—a tough combination. But I still didn’t believe it, even after three doctors’ diagnoses.

Once I recognized myself in the checklists of these two disorders, it finally became clear to me and those around me.

Mental health is real. Your brain can become a monster, a monster capable of convincing you that you would be better off dead.

The momentum can suddenly stop

When things are going well, I’m an engine headed uphill—the momentum gets me going.

When something is heading out of my control, my anxiety can explode quickly. I go dark.

But I recognize when I need to reach out. I know when I need to be somewhere quieter, such as my cottage, where I can recharge the batteries.

I’ve had to learn to reduce social media use. And I’ve had to tell people, “No, I can’t help you.” I’ve learned to say no and create those boundaries.

And it’s okay to be open with retailers and brands and say, “I need some time.” And to ask some staff to help me. I know that trusting them more is what helps me.

The stigma can come from those close to you

I’ll never forget how my dad first reacted to this disease. I’d been on television to discuss mental health and was very open about my experience. He called me and said, “I heard about you going on TV, talking about this. What’s next? Are you going to take out a billboard telling people you’re crazy?”

That comment underscored the stigma for me.

A few days later, he called and said, “I’m sorry. Some friends of mine saw you and said how powerful and meaningful your message was.”

Entrepreneurs need to maintain their mental health

In the last 15 years, I have sat down with hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs, mainly in the food sector. Many battle the same thing—anxiety, stress and fear. From this, I’ve seen a few things business owners can do to stay on top of their mental health:

  • Surround yourself with people who you feel safe being open-minded with. And listen to them.
  • Set boundaries. Sometimes, you’ve got to say, “I need to take care of myself. I can’t do this right now.”
  • Stop thinking that all you need to do is correct your numbers, sharpen your pencil and go harder.
  • Choose your people well and find at least one mentor.
  • Join an entrepreneur social group or start one.
  • See mental health as part of your business’s sustainable environment.

I continue my journey—with help

Right now, I’m good. I’m on medication and meet regularly with my psychiatrist. Along with psychotherapy, I have support from those who know what my journey has looked like. Seeing others recover has also given me hope.

The medications are helping me, and I accept the fact that there will be lows, regardless. I can feel them when they’re coming on.

I’ve become very open about what I’ve been through and what I deal with, so I let those around me know when I may be losing some control or need guidance.

I need a certain level of manic high to allow me to be “on”— to see things and have a good sense of what will work for new brands, trends, retailer communications and all the elements that make my business successful. I can harness the positive energy that people say I bring to a room, which fosters my ability to guide and build a business.

I remain grateful for the people around me—mentors, family, friends and community. I couldn’t do this without them.

Pete Neal continues to advocate for mental health. Another company he’s been involved with, Manley Barrier Apparel, donates a portion of its profits towards men’s mental health initiatives.

Get more support for your well-being

Explore BDC’s resources for entrepreneur well-being, including a curated directory of research, services, apps and organizations to support entrepreneur mental health.

This article was created in collaboration with Unsinkable, a charitable organization focused on mental health advocacy through the power of storytelling.

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