Hard Lesson: Breaking the Silence Surrounding Mental Health

Andy Dunn, MBA ’07, opens up about the moment that nearly derailed his life.

April 18, 2023

Andy Dunn sitting on the floor looking at camera. Credit: Lyndon

When he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Andy Dunn recalls, “We just buried it.“ | Lyndon

In his memoir, Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind, Bonobos co-founder Andy Dunn writes about the moment in 2016 when he “came within an inch of losing the woman who is now my wife, the company, and everything I cared for in the world” before getting treatment for bipolar disorder. He spoke about this experience in a recent View From The Top.

My mom’s an Indian immigrant. My dad’s family were kind of classic Scandinavian Midwesterners. I grew up in a biracial household, and I think maybe the most interesting part of that, in retrospect, is how different the cultures were around communication. One thing the cultures did have in common was an abject desire to not speak about mental health.

Editor’s Note

As part of an ongoing series, Stanford Business magazine asks Stanford GSB alumni to reflect on one of their biggest business failures and what they learned from it.

Andy Dunn, MBA ’07, is the co-founder of Bonobos, the founder and CEO of Pumpkin Pie, and the author of Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind. This article is adapted from his View From The Top appearance in October 2022.

I was diagnosed when I was a senior in college. We just buried it. I internalized that as an unspeakable shame. I lived that way for 16 years and I lived asymptomatic for the first eight, which lulled us, collectively as a family, into a feeling that perhaps it had been an inaccurate diagnosis. Then, in the Bonobos years, depression kicked in, and ultimately, the mania came raging back.

One of the most pernicious things about mania is that it can be triggered by positive life events — having a child, getting married, selling a company. In my case, it was falling in love with Manuela and coming to the decision that I was going to ask her to marry me. It got bad that night. I was howling at the moon. I was playing Tupac really loud, and music sounded so good, and she didn’t know what to do, so she called her mom. Her mom came over.

The felony charge was that I pushed her mom to the ground and I kicked her. Eight New York police officers showed up within about two minutes. They pinned me to the ground, cuffed me, and took me to the psychiatric emergency room at Bellevue, where I spent a week, unaware of what had happened.

Manuela came to visit every day, which was incredible. I noticed that she had a black eye. And I just said, “Did I hit you?” She said, “You’re kind of a wuss, and it didn’t hurt.” It was like a noose to the sky of shame to know that that had happened.

“Transparency with my loved ones is a critical part of my health — and therefore theirs.”

The next six months were like a hellscape. Was Manuela going to leave me? Was I going to have to step down from my job? Was there going to be PR about it? I remember being in the Fourth Precinct in New York. The arresting officer is the one booking me. He took my mug shots, and I said, “Officer, are these mug shots going to be online?” He was like, “Yeah, but, dude, you’re not the founder of Google. You sell pants.”

I was supported by the board. Manuela stayed with me, but with a condition: that I took my medication and saw a doctor. I became religious about staying healthy. Now I have a pretty robust system of medication. I still see that doctor twice a week.

And sleep is so critical. I have a sleep report that I send [to] a WhatsApp group, and it goes every morning. So everyone knew yesterday — which is a little bit annoying, because I know my mom worries about it still — that the night before last I slept 4 hours and 33 minutes.

So last night was a high-pressure sleep night. I had an 8-hour night. I sent it to my family, and my mom was like, “Good.” It’s humbling to be in this kind of a dynamic, but I know that transparency with my loved ones is a critical part of my health — and therefore theirs.

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