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Depression Stigma in IT?

Closeup fireI’ve been struggling with writing this for a couple of weeks now, but ever since I saw the article over on TechCrunch entitled We Need To Talk About Depression it has been on my mind.

The article talks about some of the stigma associated with depression and mental health in a startup company.

Building a startup is like climbing a mountain and being told you’ll only get the gear you need–harnesses, helmets, bottled oxygen–as you struggle toward the peak. Long hours away from family, responsibility to investors and users, and the fear of failure are extremely stressful and they sometimes coalesce into something more severe.
I’m not a startup founder, but as a TechCrunch writer I’ve gotten to know many, some quite well, and I’ve seen how entrepreneurship can put even the most optimistic people at risk for depression.

It got me thinking about the tech world in general. There are certain stereotypes about tech workers; we work long hours, have no social life, deal with highly stressful situations putting out all of the technical fires that happen within our organizations, etc. Those stereotypes, unfortunately, also turn into expectations. I have always thought that was one of the bigger problems with attracting females to an IT career, this sense that they would be expected to work long hours, be on call for emergencies, and non-emergencies, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, etc. (Granted, there are many other reasons why there are a lack of females in the tech world, but this is not an article about that)

Those expectations would make it difficult for someone dealing with depression as well. As John Grohol stated in response to the above article:

 Indeed. When you’re young and feel like you have endless energy, working 80 hours a week (and getting paid for 40) seems like a good idea. But it’s not. It eventually catches up to you, stresses you out, and throws your entire life out of balance.

Some of the articles written around this topic sound like thinly-veiled excuses for the discrimination and prejudice that many have experienced in startup cultures. That because these environments are stressful and demanding, it somehow excuses discrimination and stigma of mental illness.

Here’s where it gets personal to me. I’ve struggled with depression. I’ve attempted suicide before. Sure it’s been years, but this is something that I know I have to be on the lookout for every single day of my life. It’s also something that, while I freely discuss it on my other site, I don’t often discuss professionally.
The reality is, I work for a software company. I work in the tech industry that demands so much of it’s workers. (For the record, the legal industry is just as bad, if not worse. If you work in any sort of technical position for a law firm, well, that’s a whole other level of expectations!) Sure, it’s not really a startup any longer, but my job as a trainer involves me spending a lot of time away from home, sometimes teaching a class all day for several days and then traveling at night or on a weekend. Other times it means working from home all by myself all day, still others it means teaching online classes at all hours of the day and night for overseas students. It’s a job where I am constantly being evaluated, and critiqued, by my students, which can be a struggle for someone with depression. I know that saying anything about my struggles, or the way I have to watch myself, opens me up to being treated differently. There’s a risk that someone will think less of me as a trainer because I need to sometimes find a better balance. There is a risk of other people trying to decide that balance for me, without my input. There’s a risk of having people watch me carefully for any sign of struggle, often in very uncomfortable ways. I know those are risks because over the last 25 years of my professional life, every one of them has occurred in various workplaces. Heck I know that as I type this, someone is going to change how they look at me. In fact, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I’m going to spend the next 4 weeks not teaching, but working on training documentation, from my home office, while my wife has already relocated to Oregon. I’m in a situation where there will be virtually no personal interaction at all. It’s possible that the next four weeks are the most dangerous time for a relapse that I’ve had in 15 years, and I know that writing that means that people are already going to be watching my posts and my Facebook interactions for signs that I’m losing it. (I’m not, there are safeguards in place, as long as I follow them and get out of the house on occasion, I’ll be fine, and in 5 weeks, I’ll be in Ohio visiting family and friends. Looking forward to that helps too!)

I know that admitting what I just did makes me look weak to some people reading this. That’s fine, you can think that if you want. When you’ve lived through everything I’ve lived through without any form of depression, then you can call me weak for having to watch myself for signs of depression every day. If you haven’t, then your opinion really doesn’t matter to me. Maybe the best way to put it is how Catherine put it in that TechCruch article:

Asking for help makes you vulnerable, but it does not mean you are weak. It does not mean you are deficient. Asking for help when you are depressed is one of the bravest things you can do.

So yeah, we need to talk about this. Not just in IT, in every industry and workplace. 1 in 10 Americans reports suffering from depression. If you have more than 10 people working in your company, there is a very, very good chance that someone there is dealing with depression, and is at risk. They, like me, need help. For awhile I needed professional help. I spent quite a long time in therapy, and boy did I have to schedule my work around that! Now, I don’t need to be in therapy, but I certainly need the help of my wife, my family and friends. I know that I can’t go away and not interact with anyone, even if it means just exchanging texts, Facebook messages, or whatever. I need to know that those people are there if I need them, and that I can have time to reach out to them when I need it. Working 80 hours a week putting out fires doesn’t allow for that. I get that sometimes it’s necessary, but it can’t be a lifestyle, and we shouldn’t be looked down upon for taking care of ourselves. It’s a whole lot better than what happens when we choose the alternative, and don’t take care of ourselves.

If you, or someone you know, is dealing with depression, please go follow the links to those articles. Read the whole thing, as they say, and take a look at the various resources linked therein as well.

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