Dont Eat Dont Sleep Code Facing Mental Illness in Technology

autosync 10,175 7th Oct, 2020

                         Don’t eat, don’t sleep, code. 1 in 5 American Adults will experience a mental illness, and depression is the leading cause of disability. However, researchers from the University of California found that 72% of tech entrepreneurs surveyed self reported mental health concerns. Despite mental health affecting a large portion of the tech industry, discussions remain far and few between and are usually treated like an unfortunate social issue instead of a widespread health concern. As technology becomes more integrated into modern society and technologists affect more human lives, can we keep pushing this issue under the rug?

My junior year of college I was sitting in a therapist appointment, the splitting image of a stereotypical college software developer. My laptop is obnoxiously plastered in stickers, my eyes sparkled when I heard words like “innovation” and “disrupting the market”. I was likely wearing 3 different forms of tech branded clothing items and thinking about the next JavaScript framework I was going to learn when I told my therapist “My mental illness doesn’t affect me professionally”. She nodded and turned her pen to her notes to jot down what I can only imagine is the professional version of “bullshit”. I instinctively defended the obvious lie I just said. “Well I’m very different here from how I am at work, I keep it professional”. She cooly hit me with a “and that doesn’t affect you at all?”. I looked away in response, refusing to confront the hard truth that my mental illness can’t be left at home while I start my career. I didn’t know it then, but that wake-up call was a privilege that would save my life and my career.

It’s been less than a year since I’ve been in treatment for bipolar 2 with severe anxiety. Bipolar 2 is characterized by unpredictable shifts in mood between depression and hypomania, which is a less extreme form of mania that is experienced in Bipolar 1. Hypomania creates periods of increased euphoria and energy, making me incredibly productive and creative, but also increases my anxiety and makes it very hard to sleep or focus. Looking back at the past four years, the way that I managed my mental illness early on in college had a huge influence on my career in technology, and vice versa. Once I got to college I flooded my calendar with workshops, meetups, and hackathons to work off the blue feeling that bit at my ankles. Hackathons committed me to code and connect with a community of passionate do-it-yourself hackers instead of wallowing in bed. When I was at a hackathon I was in my happy place, far away from my usual routine of a GPA-destroying-depression so severe that I could not leave my bed for days. My first two years of college my mental illness fixated on making me the ideal product for a company to employ, and when I prioritized my career over my health I was rewarded with accomplishments and praise by peers and recruiters. Leaning into the workaholic culture of technology left me with a tangled mess of my passion, illness, and ambition that only became more suffocating.

Beginning treatment and finding health methods to my madness radically shifted my role in the tech community to focus on advocacy and education. But I’m still overwhelmed with uncertainty about the field I am entering. Can I ever be successful in tech with mental illness? Will tech employers be understanding about my illness, or will they demonize me and see me as violent because of the stigma around bipolar disorder? How will I tell them? The tech industry is notoriously exclusive, and “invisible” illnesses are nuanced. In private conversations with my coworkers and peers they reveal that some aspects of developer culture are tearing their health to shreds. The expectation to work long hours triggers their mental illness, both because of lack of sleep and increased work pressure. Networking events are usually accompanied with drinking, which can strain mental health over time and tempt substance abuse. “There is always someone working harder and doing more than you, keep moving and fail fast.” These workaholic sentiments are sewed into daily meetings, conferences, social media posts.

Mental health days can be hard to get approved, especially for people who are already in a marginalized group and feel some form of discrimination or the pressure to prove themselves. Mental illness is covered by the American Disabilities Act, which legally protects people from workplace discrimination based on their disabilities. But the ADA doesn’t protect people from the microaggressions, judgement, and decreased opportunities due to mental health stigma. It is not enough for it to be technically okay to use a sick day if mental illness is preventing you from work. Mental health not a social issue that can be solved with a quick HR email, it’s a widespread health concern. We are long due for a candid and intersectional conversation about environmental, social, and health factors of mental illness. The ideas and work from the brains of technologists affect billions of lives everyday, and those brains need to be as healthy as possible for the safety of everyone else.

The social progress that the tech industry has made in the past 5 years is profound. There has never been a time in the industry where identities, workers rights, and social issues have been this talked about. People’s voices are finally being heard and acted upon, and discussions about mental health need to be at the forefront of these conversations. Statistically, marginalized groups suffer more from mental health and have the least access to mental health resources. These challenges are backed up with cultural strains towards reaching out about mental health. Language like “She’s so bipolar about this”, “I’m really OCD about things being this way”, or “this sprint made me want to kill myself” is still common office language. The tech industry needs more candid conversations about a lot of issues affecting developers, but we need to be screaming about mental health from the rooftops before more people are hurt or killed. Founders, managers, developers, interns, professors, everyone in the organizational chart need to be aware that employees are people that are uniquely abled.

I have a lot of anxiety about publishing this online. Bipolar disorder is often demonized and associated with anger, violence, and instability, and I’m selfishly worried how that will affect my job prospects. I admit that I wasn’t initially sold on my diagnosis because my view on bipolar disorder was so clouded by stigma. But I insist that my patience and kindness is not stunted by my illness, and that my struggle has given me even more empathy and strength that I can use to impact lives with technology. I’m writing this and putting it online because in my years of being in the movement to make tech a more inclusive industry I have never once heard anyone openly say they’re mentally ill. I’m hoping that if you’re suffering the way I have, you will use your voice for change as well to promote reform for technologists.
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