The business owners beating their mental health issues

Laura-Leigh DiGiovanni
Image caption Running a business has helped Laura-Leigh turn her life around

Before starting her dog-grooming business Laura-Leigh DiGiovanni's life had spiralled out of control.

"I was living in a homeless shelter to get away from a man... we were both getting arrested, there were restraining orders," says the 47-year-old.

"So I was going in this downward sledge, really hitting rock bottom."

Suffering from anxiety disorder and depression, the Toronto native says she often couldn't face the world at all.

"For two years I couldn't leave the house without a panic attack. Men scared the hell out of me, everything scared the hell out of me."

Laura-Leigh was ultimately pulled from her abyss by a policeman who referred her to a Canadian mental health court.

These are criminal courts created to deal with people with mental health problems. The idea is that the judges try to focus more on helping the accused tackle their condition instead of just punishing them.

Image caption There is now a waiting list for Laura-Leigh's services

Laura-Leigh was put in the care of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), a charity that gave her a place in one of its shelters in Toronto. As she started to get slowly back on track, Laura-Leigh was introduced to another Canadian charity that has transformed her life - Rise Asset Development.

Backed by a mixture of private and public money, Rise offers loans to people with mental health or addiction problems, to help them set up their own businesses.

Laura-Leigh just needed to come up with an idea. A lone bright spot in her life was her dog Molly, who gave her the inspiration to set up Pawfect Cuts Pet Grooming in 2012.

With support from Rise, she has never looked back. Today she has a loyal customer base, and the waiting time for an appointment can be as long as four weeks.

'Like a super power'

While Laura-Leigh might seem a rarity, a lone example of someone with mental health problems succeeding in business, she is in fact far from alone.

In Greenville, South Carolina, Nichole Livengood is a serial entrepreneur who also happens to suffer from bipolar disorder.

Image copyright Nichole Livengood
Image caption Nichole Livengood says she can "multitask like a beast"

The 40-year-old currently runs two businesses, a public relations firm called NicLive PR, and food blog Gap Creek Gourmet.

Rather than seeing her mental condition as a handicap, Nichole says it can be a source of strength, and that her manic phases are a boost to her productivity.

"It's like a super power sometimes. I can multitask like a beast."

However, she does add that she needs to manage her condition much like managing a business. "I have to be very self aware, and be very careful with my needs, and know my body," says Nichole.

Another woman who has succeeded in business while having mental health issues to deal with is 56-year-old Susan Jamieson.

Image copyright Susan Jamieson
Image caption Susan Jamieson's autism means she is great with numbers

Raised on Canada's Prince Edward Island, at the age of six she says she was diagnosed as "mentally retarded".

Although Susan would later learn that she was actually on the autism spectrum, she says that the initial diagnosis stuck through her childhood, and her unusual behaviour in the eyes of other children made her a target for bullying.

Being autistic means that Susan can struggle with social settings, but at the same time she has an affinity for numbers and logic.

She has found these latter skills very effective in the world of business, and says that as a result people have ignored her autism. "When people know you know how to make money, everyone is interested," she says.

After first working for Hilton Hotels and Resorts, at the age of 26 Susan launched her own sales and marketing agency, which was bought three years later by the Financial Times of Canada.

She then went on to start a number of other successful businesses.

Susan's latest venture is Zoned Comics, a partnership with Marvel Comics to create anti-bullying comic books that give voices to children.

Image copyright Zoned Comics
Image caption Zoned is a tie-up with comics giant Marvel

Run as a competition in Canada, children are invited to send in stories, either a personal experience of bullying, or about a superhero who prevents bullying through non-violent means.

The best stories are then turned into comic strips by staff at Marvel.

The partnership has already produced its first book, which is available online and distributed in classrooms throughout Canada. The scheme makes money through sponsorship and advertising.

'Unique insight'

Back at Pawfect Cuts Pet Grooming, Laura-Leigh says she first started to build up the business by offering her services for free.

"People would come, and I would groom their dog for free, and then they'd want to give me a tip, or insist on paying me. It evolved from that."

She adds: "It brought me out of my shell, and I had to talk to people."

Image caption Laura-Leigh says that running a successful business is "an incredible feeling"

The Rise programme that backed Laura-Leigh started in 2010, and has so far issued more than 190 loans at a total value of more than 600,000 Canadian dollars ($450,000; £370,000).

Rise says that so far a quarter of the loans have already been paid back.

Sally Wilkie, a Rise project manager, adds that the organisation works to offer participants all the help they need, including matching them with a mentor.

While most people might think that living with a mental illness could only ever be a hindrance to running your own business, Dr Sean Kidd, a clinical scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, disagrees.

He points to the fact that many successful businesses are built from the life experiences of their owners, and that living with a mental illness offers a unique one.

"Some of the insights that having had a mental illness might provide may actually give the person an angle on the [business] market that makes them more competitive," says Dr Kidd.

Laura-Leigh says starting her business has changed her life.

"I can plan for my future, I have an RSP [registered savings plan] for my kids, I'm not going to the food bank anymore. It is an incredible feeling."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites