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Mental Health in Tech

catcarbn profile image Cat Carbonell ・1 min read

In light of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain's suicides, I want to ask all of you:

How do you cope in hopeless situations?

How do you approach your employer and/or team when you're feeling the low tide slowly engulfing your existence?

How can tech help with mental health?


I find myself drowning in self-doubt, beating myself down when I don't understand a coding concept; I see the solution and it seems so simple, thus I berate myself for not understanding it or coming up with the solution at all.

Stepping away, if I can, helps. But what do you do when you're too deep into the spiral of hopelessness?


I will be going to Hack Mental Health's "Reverse Hackathon" this weekend in San Francisco, and live-tweeting my team's progress as much as I can.

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catcarbn profile

Cat Carbonell

@catcarbn

Learner Advocate @eggheadio! UX/UI Engineer! General Assembly alum [SEI 08]!

Discussion

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How I Cope:

The only thing that's ever helped me while I'm in a spiral, is admitting that I'm in a spiral. Because the moment I can identify the spiral, I'm in a control again. If I'm beating myself up or feeling stupid, I can register it as 'ok, this is part of the spiral. it needs to take its course. you're venting and emotional but you know none of these feelings hold truth and it will pass.'

Obviously, everyone processes differently. I'd love to get to a point where I can start identifying signs of spiraling before it actually hits, but for now, I try not to beat myself up on top of already beating myself up.

I also really believe in having non-screen-time activities to default to -- something you can do with your hands. I'd always recommend calling up a friend not just to 'talk' (because that can totally continue the spiraled venting) but to do an activity together.

Approaching your team:

Ideally, your team and manager should be there to support you but work relationships and dynamics are all different and complicated. I tend to overshare, but that's me. If it's 100% work related woes (i.e. learning a new technology), I'd try to ask for help as soon as I can but also mention how vulnerable it feels to even ask for help. If there are tools you think could help your learning/throught process along, I'd ask if you could be given those resources.

How can tech help:
I mean, so many ways. I think the biggest issue is that there isn't enough $ behind mental health for us to build the tech that we need to create the most impact. It gets political :(

 

Oh yeah, and I can't believe I forgot to mention therapy. I think everyone needs therapy, even if you're 'not dealing with anything'!!

 

Therapy = Coaching in my mind. The fact that we even think about our thoughts is something that sets us apart. Accepting coaching from someone outside our own heads is a great way to familiarize ourselves with our thinking patterns, destructive and otherwise.

 

I think everyone needs therapy, even if you're 'not dealing with anything'

I'm clapping and standing, standing and clapping.

Sometimes I think how lucky one has to be to grow up without any issues at all. You didn't choose when, where and from whom you were brought into this world. You didn't choose any of your relatives. It's a miracle if you grow up unscathed :D I see so many petty problems in my family alone that could be easily solved with a bit of honesty and sometimes therapy.

I'm not sure about the US but in Italy I have yet to see a single politician talking seriously about mental health and putting it in their agenda.

Yes curing cancer is so damn important but also having functional and mentally healthy citizens that are going to be around for 80+ years :D

 

Sadly, there's entire sectors of the economy where, if you seek therapy or get prescribed chemical-assistance, it can cost you your job.

 

Perspective is always therapeutic. We should contemplate our lives every now and then and I'm sure we'll realize frequently that our work-related problems which cause anxiety, depression etc, not the mental health issues themselves, are in the bigger picture pretty insignificant compared to what the vast majority of people across the globe go through everyday. Do things much more meaningful than your job in this, what I believe to be, an intrinsically vapid yet fun life. Grow a consciousness of your surroundings. Work on a social/political cause, volunteer at an NGO, read on how to make the world a better place.

I hope we're all lucky to have a boss and a team of peers that we can rely on as a support system and can expect some substantive reciprocation from that'll help us heal. But may be this should only be tried if the colleagues are extraordinarily candid with each other. It can backfire: not getting the right response or having your issue trivialized can throw you off in a really bad way.

There are tons of apps out there. Many employ deep learning to gauge our mental health, suggest activities to keep us on track etc. However, there's nothing comparable to talking everything out with a friend or a loved one. Social isolation is a major reason for the spike in suicide rates over the last decade and a half. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there could be a correlation with increased social media usage. May be cut back on all the stuff that reinforces our urge for constant attention and approval.

Online therapy helps too.

 

Be careful with contemplation. Depending on your personality-type, introspection can lead you further down the spiral. For some, the better tack is to keep yourself occupied or distracted.

 

That's a good point. I guess it depends on how far down you already are. As someone who does have anxiety, I've found it humbling to read/listen to other people's experiences from around the world. It helps me occasionally, but yes I suppose not for everybody.

If you have anxiety, the tech's lifeblood (caffeine) tends to exacerbate it.

Similarly, if you ever find yourself suffering from migraines an have an underlying propensity for anxiety, don't let your doctor prescribe Topomax. While that drug's great for solving migraines, it can drive anxiety levels off the scale. :p

 

Are you referring to contemplation alone, without guidance? Yeah, that could be trouble.

But in the long term, contemplation of some sort is the only way you'll identify and resolve whatever mental habits might be making things harder on yourself. No one else can tell you what's going on in your own mind. But you can best get something out of that type of contemplation by talking with someone who can help guide you through trouble. Therapy was essential, for me.

Keeping yourself occupied and distracted can be useful, temporarily. But it's not a long-term strategy.

Success with therapy is at least as dependent on the patients' proclivities as the practitioners' skills. Trying to find a compatible therapist - let alone one that can actually prove helpful - can be harder than finding a GP that you can work with. Difference is, if a GP is incompatible, it doesn't tend to exacerbate the underlying problems.

Plus, like medication, seeking out the help of a therapist can close off some avenues of employment (some industries will immediately distrust someone that's actively undergoing or has undergone treatment - whether just talk or prescribed-chemical).

Hopefully people will value their own mental health over the prejudices of a potential employer.

As for a GP not exacerbating underlying problems, that depends on the GP.

 

I find running to be very helpful. In particular long distance running. We've all heard about the "runner's high". I think it deserves a better name though. I like to go for a good run when I'm down. And not come back until I feel better.

 

How do you cope in hopeless situations?

I code. I started coding as a way cope with depression. I'm an introvert and in general have trouble socialising with people, I just keep coding thinking that this will change things for me one day.

beating myself down when I don't understand a coding concept; I see the solution and it seems so simple

This happens a lot, I'm from a non CS background so I know how it feels. Things that literally took me weeks or months to learn, another person might learn in a day or two.

Just don't give up. Not knowing the answer today, doesn't mean you will never find it. If you have no clue on how to solve something, explore something else instead. You will find your eureka moment eventually.

 
 

I think self-doubt and "imposter syndrome" is very common in this industry.

When doubting myself and my abilities, I try to remember that everyone else does too. I'm not the only one, and although I didn't understand this thing, I do now and can learn from it.

 

I don't think there are any silver bullets, but a few things that seem to help:

  1. Acknowledging that mental ups and downs are a part of being all of us, and normal, and a health issue rather than something we "should fix". This plays out in a few ways for me...

    • Reducing a feeling of self-blame when I'm down, making it "ok" to ask for help (if you wouldn't hesitate to call the doctor's advice line for a physical ailment, why do so for a mental ailment?)
    • giving myself permission to take "mental health days" in the same way I take "sick days" for physical illnesses.
  2. Getting enough sleep. Seriously. When I'm sleep deprived my mental health crashes like woah.

  3. Getting enough light. I noticed in the last year I was feeling down a lot more in the winter... the reason? Since going to work for myself I've been working from my home office where I normally rely on natural light. This has been a net positive, but when we had rainy/dark days it brought me way down... remembering to turn on extra lights on those days was a big help.

And just as an aside - that feeling of berating yourself for not getting a concept, and then it seems so simple after the fact... that's also 100% a part of being human. This stuff is hard. I don't think I know anyone who hasn't struggled with it at some point, anyone saying it isn't hard has probably just forgotten what it was like when they were learning. The struggle is real, and props to you for continuing through it.

 

1: Music is my healing. It helps me channel my feelings at a particular time, such as I did in these two songs:

youtube.com/watch?v=YrrHQn_LHt8

youtube.com/watch?v=pcPM_pLvTQo

2: I don't know if it's this way at the "cool" tech companies but in the typical, non-tech, corporate world, people who have and admit to having mental health issues tend to get put on the infamous "Performance Improvement Plan" sooner or later. Most people with these issues will choose to suffer in silence. I have seen this become a problem a few times when self-medication gets out of hand or, yes, someone commits suicide. Basically, most companies don't care and won't care unless it hurts their bottom line.

3: Without a financial incentive, all you'll get is the typical corporate "virtue signaling" but no action that actually helps. The best thing we can do as team members and leads is to not be a jerk to other people and notice if someone is struggling.

 

Hey Cat. Mental health tracking and enhancing shouldn't be only your individual responsibility but whole your team and organization should help.
The common issue I find is people just don't understand how they can help each other in a meaningful way. It all often starts from understanding what impacts our self-esteem, and life satisfaction.

For this reason my team is using team health check app. This let us understand how all team (sometimes including stakeholders) feels about different aspect of our daily work and collaboration, so we can very quickly turnaround it into the honest discussion about the most important matters for us.

You can read more about it in my post Tools that help me build healthy and performing teams.

The best wishes and a lot of mental toughness!

 

To be short, this is a concept that I call the inversion of rationality.

I noticed that on contrary to other people, I ended up thinking rationally on different places than they do.

Everything technical is very very instinctive to me. This has been driving me all my life to code. I just do stuff by believing that's how to do it. Sometimes it's wrong and I change it. Sometimes I read my code years later and think it's garbage. Sometimes I think I'm a genius. But the point is that I didn't ask myself too many questions before doing it. I don't have to known what I'm doing but instead I do believe in it at the time I'm doing it.

On the other hand I used to be bullied at school for years so when a client calls me like their office is burning and their project is the absolute top-priority unless the world is going to end well I don't care. I can listen to rational arguments about why a deadline is important and I take care to deliver a high-end final result but only because I rationally chose to. Any rational reason would come in the way and I would drop it all without remorse.

So I guess that's how I cope with all the bullshit.

 

Seconded. All of this. I would add talking to your therapist about medication, if you haven't already. It doesn't need to be used long-term but it can be a huge help in times of crisis, as long as it doesn't become a crutch. A good therapist can help you minimise the risks. It saved me.

It's also important to find a therapist that you have a good relationship with, and can guide you through a type of therapy that works for you. My first therapist was completely wrong for me - too much of a psychoanalyst. My second therapist was great. CBT is the gold standard, but ACT (Acceptance Commitment Therapy) worked better for me. It's kinda like a combination of CBT and mindfulness.

 

Cat, the problem is that some people will always make you feel like 'you know nothing, Jon Snow'!

Some developers are way ahead of you that you'd think "ooh, am I bad?", for which the answer is NO. You are who you are and they are who they are. The experience is all that makes you different.

If you read something and don't understand it right away, then you probably are the same as 90% of developers! Just give it time to sit in. Your brain will try to understand the concept in the background. Comeback to it in couple of days and you'll see that now you understand it.

In a nutshell, DON'T WORRY! As long as you are trying, you are gonna be OK!

 

From an emotional point of view, the life of a developer is like a rollercoaster. Days of anxiety from performance expectations and low self-esteem when no coding solution seems to be easily found to days of pride and happiness when you can finally find a solution.
Recognizing this "rollercoaster pattern" has helped me many times in my professional career. If I do not get easily a concept or do not figure a solution out at first, I do not beat myself down, because I know that it "just" means I have to do some more effort, that I need a bit more time - for more research, for more study. Or that I need to decompose the problem in smaller more meaningful problems/tiny baby steps, that I can solve. Learning, and particularly learning to code, is never easy, it comes with a mental cost. Just like gym workouts, some are tougher than others and require more willingness to "suffer", to obtain a change. But when you realize that you changed the way you wanted, oh boy! That moment is pure joy.
If I am "too deep into the spiral of hopelessness" because of coding, I would code anyway, as a response. In the best way I can, even if my best coding contains still a lot of mistakes.
I would need to qualify "code anyway", though: I mean, I would keep on coding, but with the reserve of not getting mentally exhausted. If you are a sport type, then exercising can help a lot to avoid mental exhaustion. Dancing is particularly cheerful and regenerating for me, for instance. But I get a great mental relief from drawing, too or playing piano. Arts in general can offer great mental helps - both if you practice them actively or if you just "consume" them (by going to an art museum instead of drawing or listening to music, instead of playing it, for instance).

 

I work from home at least two days a week which helps a lot.