Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

Summary: In 2011 tech increased its awareness about depression and suicide, highlit by tragedy.


As 2011 comes to a close, it's clear there is no question that tech culture has strong relationships with disorders and illnesses related to acute stress, depression, autism, and the tragedy of suicide.

Tech culture is also no stranger to accusations among its ranks of both borderline and narcissistic personality disorders.

The pressure to succeed is enormous, and a recent suicide in startup culture sparked heated and sometimes painful conversations in online tech culture forums about the mental health perils of working in tech.

My hope is that in reflecting on the losses so many of us have suffered this year, we can take a close look at what makes tech and the startup world a prime environment for incubating and overlooking these issues.

The issue of tech and startup culture and depression and suicide came to the fore in November when 22-year-old Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of indie social network Diaspora, committed suicide.

Zhitomirskiy's work situation resonated with many in startup and engineering circles. Diaspora had the publicity, groundswell and acumen that made its launch something many startup jocks hope for when trying to get a new project off the ground.

And like many startups, notably social startups, Diaspora hit a fallow period. As is tradition, Diaspora's name mingled on many tongues with the word "failure."

On November 7 the Wall Street Journal ran the article Whatever Happened To Diaspora The Facebook Killer? We will never know if it had anything to do with the fact that Ilya Zhitomirskiy was found in his San Francisco flat five days later.

No one agrees whether Diaspora is or is not a failed endeavor - only time will tell - but its faltering brought up the familiar dance all technologists do with the concept of "fail" long before Zhitomirskiy's tragedy.

How much, many want to know, did tech culture contribute to this awful loss?

The #Fail Culture

Failure, failing, and being "a failure" is such a part of tech culture that it is a cultural locus for entire posts, blogs, pep talks and conventions.

Failure is universally feared and derided, yet framed and re-framed again and again as a means of staying positive, of learning from mistakes, of using failure as a measure of working hard for success.

The ideal of success in tech is married to the terror of failure.

What undoubtedly makes it worse is the public nature of tech culture, populated with gossip bloggers happy to run any item for page views, the better if it humiliates their competitors. Add to this that the very nature of tech work itself is inherently isolating.

Dr. Keely Kolmes, Psy. D. counseled students at Stanford University for six years. When I interviewed her for this article, she immediately told me about the "Stanford Duck Syndrome":

I was always struck by the immense pressure the Stanford students felt to keep the illusion that they were doing well. We would refer to it as the Stanford Duck Syndrome: everyone gave the illusion that they were gliding elegantly across the water, but nobody could see that beneath the surface they were paddling like crazy to keep up.

My observation is that many people in tech culture experience similar pressure to maintain a public image. They are fearful of exposing their vulnerabilities to others or asking for help.

Bootstrappers Can't Afford Help

In many aspects of trying to "make it" in tech, bootstrapping is how everyone gets there. Especially among startups, it's accepted that to get your company off the ground that everyone involved is going to have to make personal sacrifices and "cut corners."

Those sacrifices are typically monetary - often times having a decent working and sleeping environment are also put low on the priority list. In bootstrapping, you'll work 15 hours a day and have little to no social life - I can tell you from painful personal experience that romantic relationships suffer horribly during bootstrapping, much more than I can explain here.

When someone is already struggling with they way they're feeling, a daily environment that feels more like lonely, constant surveillance than a home or office only exacerbates internal distress. A great example of this is the tendency for bootstrappers and writers to work in a cafe.

Factor in the amount of bravado, false-fronts and 'fake it till you make it' that greases tech's social interactions, and you can imagine how much shame plays a very real role in keeping the suffering of individuals hidden.

Dr. Kolmes elaborates on how much more personal this is for startup culture denizens and tech's constant high-stakes online endeavors - which I'd expand to include tech writing and other aspects of technology based on the person-as-brand:

Those putting their egos, reputations, and wallets on the line, investing so much heart, soul, time, energy and money in these ventures are engaging in high stakes behavior.

It is a gamble. And it makes sense to me that there is great potential to fall to very low places after investing so much and believing so much in something.

And in this day and age, all eyes are upon you. You are not taking these risks in a vacuum, but your name and identity are very public. It can truly can be a roller coaster for emotions, and if you're already prone to depression, anxiety, or other mental illness, this kind of stress can wreak havoc.

But the issue of money for bootstrappers isn't to be underestimated; the psychological risk is just as real as the financial risk.

Even if friends, lovers or coworkers can spot warning signs that someone might need a little help, chances are good that the person can't afford to see anyone.

And do you think a lot of people cutting their teeth in tech have insurance - or if they do, can deal with what a diagnosis might do to their insurance? Perhaps that's why geeks are making their own resources, such as Suicide Scale.

I have to wonder: even if there were some flexible-rate therapists, even ones that would take equity and shares as payment, do you think people in pain would be able to step out of the matrix and start getting help?

People in tech culture are definitely worried whether or not they're at risk - the popularity of the post U Can't Haz Sadz: The Hushed Dangers of Startup Depression is a testament to increasing awareness about tech culture's relationship with depression and mental health challenges.

But as Dr. Kolmes explains, "There is already a great deal of stigma attached to seeking help for depression, anxiety, or other issues, and it sadly this prevents many people from getting the care they need."

Tech and Depression: The Asperger's Factor

In talking to and interviewing therapists for this article, they all stressed the role of Asperger's Syndrome when talking about depression and mental health among people in tech.

If you're unfamiliar, Asperger's Syndrome is a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum where "Aspies" experience serious difficulties with basic social interactions (notably in communication, empathy, self-care and literal interpretations) and excel at things that involve rules, systems and laws.

Asperger's has been called "the geek syndrome" because of its strong ties to IT, and some people believe that we wouldn't have computational science if it weren't for the disorder.

Lots of geeks wonder, or worry, that they may have Asperger's.

Keep an eye on the boards at Hacker News long enough, and you'll see that Asperger's comes up fairly frequently as a topic and when it does the threads are long and intense - with plenty of people trying to self-diagnose online or trying to solve painful personal life issues by sharing articles about living with Asperger's.

The only way to find out, of course, is to see a doctor. The struggle and immense amount of work it takes to fit in within tech culture is not to be underestimated, Asperger's or not. Dr. Kolmes tells me,

When we're talking about folks in tech and depression, we have to note that there are a lot of successful folks in tech who may fit along the Asperger's spectrum and if these folks are sometimes harder to read emotionally, we may not know that our pals are suffering.

People with Asperger's are also vulnerable to depression in connection to their feeling unaccepted or not understood and from the work of trying to socially fit in. They may have histories of feeling lonely or being bullied and may also be perfectionistic (and thus more vulnerable, if, say, a business venture fails).

Finding Answers and Resources

The signs and symptoms of depression can easily go undetected in tech culture; especially since we're all trying so hard to show we're happy and successful - and any sign of distress or unhappiness typically results in painful reinforcement, such as unfollows.

I think it will still benefit everyone to know what the signs are. Rather than a blog post, I recommend reading the complete signs and symptoms of depression as provided by the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association's depression page.

To find out more about depression and suicide risk, take a look at NIMH's suicide fact sheet and the APA's suicide risk resource page.

Dr. Kolmes tells me,

A good workbook that I think can be used easily by clients wanting to do work on their own is Mind Over Mood (Greenburger and Padesky). Also, I know a lot of people who really like using the David Burns book Feeling Good.

I found this site which may be helpful, explaining links between Asperger's and depression.

There is also a book I recommend to clients with Asperger's who come to work with me: The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome by Tony Attwood. (Pp. 140-143 talk about depression and suicide.)

Let's resolve to drop the egos a bit and focus on what's important - and please take care of each other as we go into 2012.

Image by Sarah Witherby, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.

Topic: Social Enterprise

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  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    This is what happens when half the tech industry puts a megalomaniac on a pedestal because he used his personality disorder to motivate people. We need to stop championing bad behavior.

    This condition is caused by what some refer to as Adrenal fatigue. Working 15 hours and being driven by a person, corporation, or goal isn't healthy.

    Think about this, the entire PC Industry is very stimulating and even long hours at a machine it still stimulates your brain and makes you think. On top of this the brain creates Melatonin only when night time is perceived but if the light entering eye is enough to limit that production then your body will hit a wall eventually.

    So, lack of Melatonin and excessive stimulation = hard times falling a sleep... Long work days = little time to sleep... Little time to sleep = low Seratonin Productivity by the brain. Low Seratonin = Imbalanced Chemicals in the Brain = Anxiety and Depression.

    Bottom line, make time to unwind and relax! Don't use Alcohol to do this as that is also a depressant.

    My Advice, setup your room with room darkening and noise canceling blinds, Get a noise generator like an ocean wave sound or rain forest, Get a non-scented candle and light it in the room... Then just make time to relax in there before bed and before you know it you'll be sleeping well and much happier.
    • Don't use alcohol?

      Are you crazy? What kind of Anti-American commie crap is that?

      We're all supposed to drink until we look like Charlie Sheen in rehab! Don't forget the coffee, Monster, and Red Bull in the morning to shake off the hang over during your commute tomorrow morning. And don't even think about exercising or eating healthy, that's for people who have time on their hands. You have a life.

      Pull yourself together man!
  • Well Done Article

    Thank you.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    Thanks for posting this, Violet.<br><br>I've struggled with many of these issues myself over the years, so I really appreciate someone talking about this publicly. For me, therapy helped, and I would really encourage anyone suffering to consider it. Therapy requires a real commitment of time, patience, effort, and honesty, but it can be life changing. There are therapists out there by the way who are able and willing to be flexible on payment, although it may take some research to find one and to sort out what can work.<br><br>One of the key things I've learned from my therapist which was unexpected to me was how common this stuff really is. My therapist is older and has a lot of experience with Silicon Valley culture. He has seen people from all walks of life and from all over the area. He's talked about some of it (no names, of course), and I just have to say there are a lot of things going on you just don't see. It has really helped me to put my own problems into perspective and to see that I'm not alone and never really was. When you're stuck there in depression, you think you're the only one. You see smiling faces around you and think you're the one broken part in the machine. It is so not true. Many, many people are hurting now, and we all wear a mask of some kind.<br><br>I would strongly encourage anyone struggling with depression to seek out help. Honestly, I'd encourage anyone and everyone (apparent issues or not) to seek out therapy. We live in a strange, strange culture, and therapy can be a big help in rediscovering the balance our lives should have.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    This is a dangerous and misleading article. It completely ignores chemical imbalances in the brain (both hormonal and other) and puts way too much focus on the idea that simple pressure to perform is enough to be a cause of suicide. Yes, pressure can be a contributing factor, but it has not been proven to be enough to name as a sole cause.

    And there are plenty of other data that this article completely ignores: Suicide is highly skewed towards males, at almost a 6:1 ratio in the age group that would include Zhitomirskiy. The tech industry demographic is also skewed towards males, so there will be a strong correlation, but not necessarily any causation. And what age group has the highest suicide rate in the U.S? Over 65. Higher than college, and more than twice as high as teenagers.
    • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's


      I don't think she's saying that pressure to perform is the sole cause of suicide among IT people. I read it as the startup culture in IT can be a perfect storm for someone with existing mental issues. High stress, high frequency of failure (in startups) and extended periods of time in isolation (due to long hours) from friends and family who otherwise might be able to see the issue and intervene all contribute to this storm.


      "If you???re unfamiliar, Asperger???s Syndrome is a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum where ???Aspies??? experience serious difficulties with basic social interactions (notably in communication, empathy, self-care and literal interpretations) and excel at things that involve rules, systems and laws."

      That reads to me like IT and other scientific fields and individuals with Asperger's and similar disorders are the equivalent of a porchlight and moths. Take a look at that description again. Now think about the types of people you've encountered in highly technical positions. I can't tell you how many IT pros I've encountered that are technically gifted but significantly struggle with social skills.
    • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's



      "This is a dangerous and misleading article. It completely ignores chemical imbalances in the brain (both hormonal and other) and puts way too much focus on the idea that simple pressure to perform is enough to be a cause of suicide."

      It's an article about how the culture of silicon valley can contribute to that. It's fairly implicit that suicide generally has multiple causes that have been covered to death in many many places already.

      "Suicide is highly skewed towards males"

      SUCCESSFUL suicide is highly skewed towards males. Suicide attempts are highly skewed towards females, men just tend to choose highly effective, messy methods of suicide. In cases where there is easy access to lethal drugs the suicide rate between men and women is very similar.

      "And what age group has the highest suicide rate in the U.S? Over 65. Higher than college, and more than twice as high as teenagers."

      Yes, I agree that this is a big problem. The suicide rate for the over 65 crowd needs to be much, much higher than it is now. Our present medical system effectively tortures our elderly to death for profit by keeping them alive long after it is ethically reasonable to do so.
    • Going to be blunt here...

      @aep528 The problem IMO is not the work, nor the environment of the work. The problem here is that you are dealing with people who grew up in the 90's and 2000's. Just this week we were talking to family and friends and how this generation is different.

      Yes yes every generation says this. But this generation is different in that it does not respect things. They assume money will come from somewhere, and assume everything will work out. I am not saying that this generation does not work hard. Far from it, this generation is willing to work.

      What I am saying is that this generation expects that if you work hard then all will work out and money will come from somewhere. I just look at that and think, huh? I guess maybe because I am a GenX and we grew up in a rough recession. This current generation outside of the current "depression" has never known recession or hard times or failure.

      I don't know what causes a person to take one's own life. I will not even guess. What I do know is that this generation is not ready to accept that maybe they will not all be millionaires.... Once that dawns on people I think we have will have a changing landscape.
      • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

        @serpentmage Not necessarily true. I grew up in the '70s, have worked hard all my life, support a wife and 4 children, whom I love and adore. I am also socially inept (but getting better), have always been quite isolated, and have a family history of depression.

        I was drawn to IT (from engineering) because it satisfies my skills in abstract thought and lets me earn enough to support my family. It also means that I have to deal with a bunch of people far less intelligent than I am, and far less ethical, who hold the purse-strings. I also bear the brunt of the frustrations of people with far less skill that I have in this particular area.

        As I result, my already fragile self-image has taken a dive, and I have attempted suicide once. Fortunately, I did not succeed. I now have a thoughtful psychiatrist and medication that works for me.

        This is not just "never known hard work" or "wanting to be an instant millionaire". It has to do with personalities that are more likely to be suicidal, and the likelihood that such personalities will be found in the tech sector.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    I am going to stick with Aspergers but it seems natural if you are having problems socially you are more likely to be depressed. Tech can be helpful, message boards and comment sections mean less face to face but overall the mobile/24-7 on call/multitasking/social networking culture has to be a disaster for an Asperger's person as it emphasizes everything they are weak at.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    Biting more than one can chew has never been healthy, and it never will.
  • Unfortunately, you have to find the *right* help... which may be difficult.

    Therapist often approach a client from a specific model - goal oriented, support oriented, etc - and not all of these work equally well for any given person. One case I know of had a person with Asperger's like problems going to a goal oriented therapist who was completely focussed on the patient defining a specific goal to resolve and inadvertantly making the patient's problem *worse* because the 'problem' the patient picked ('difficulty communicating with others') was the symptom, not the problem.

    Usually, therapists aren't covered (or are only partically covered) by medical plans, so the experimentation needed to find the right therapist may often be too expensive for a person who might benefit from it. Worse, unless you're in the entertainment industry (kidding), seeing a therapist is considered a negative thing - especially to the kind of person we're talking about here; it's seen as a kind of failure.

    So, this is a lose-lose situation for most people. We have to change how we see psychological illnesses like this (and here, I'm not just talking about Asperger's and Asperger's like conditions - but all psychological illnesses). If you broke a leg or had a congenital heart defect, no one would think badly of you for it. Yet clinical depression (which is chemical in nature and can't easily be self-treated), schizophenia (which tends to be genetic in nature) or even just bad social conditioning - all of these are seen as 'personal weaknesses' or 'personal failures'.

    The American 'self-blame' mindset doesn't help here either. There's very much a culture of 'all failure is your own fault' in American society that makes finding needed support - or even admitting to needing support difficult.

    We live in a short attention span society where help is superficial and almost a hobby - where we feel good for patting someone on the back and saying 'there, there' - but rarely have the fortitude to stick by someone's side when they need long term support. When someone does need more help, we grow tired and resentful of those people and hope they go away.

    Sadly, sometimes they do.

    And life, for some at least, goes on.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    I have just lost a long posting agreeing with you, thanks to ZDNet's brain-dead managerial decisions about their software.

    Here's the executive summary. As an uber-geek who has attempted suicide, and seen similar tendencies among various of my colleagues, I think that the sorts of people who become "great" technical types (the ones who change the world, rather than the ones that merely get rich) have the sorts of personalities that can easily lead to suicide.

    Thanks for the posting
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    This article only scratches the surface from the "high" end - how about the "inadvertent freelancer"?
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    While this navel gazing is a good thing to do in order to make sure that we are not unnecessarily adding to the problem, one should remember here that the suicide rate in tech is far below that in the general population. Between my 18th birthday and my 22nd I had seven friends commit suicide in the industrial belt of Alabama in the late 70's to early 80's.

    In my now 33 years in tech, this is only the second suicide that I know of and the other was a senior VP at Fairchild in 1989. That one was extremely tragic as I met him as I was a student and our last conversation to this day has been a reminder not to let failure overly cloud your judgement of your self worth.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    Actually a very good article. I am a psychotherapist (psychoanalyst) with over eighteen years of experience. I took a career detour and have been in cutting edge IT for about twelve years until recently. I think I'm in a fairly unique position to understand these issues.
    I'm interested in what is being said about depression and Asperger's syndrome.
    I do think that therapists, especially US therapists, are too ready to diagnose a syndrome and this is not helpful.
    Usually the issue is that the technologist is involved in focussing on organising a mass of dynamically changing detail. This is very taxing.
    But there are ways to work with this therapeutically.
  • RE: Tech's Relationship With Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

    All the spectrum disorders have, as a symptom, something called "perseveration." It's like an F5 key on anything that happens to strike your brain in a certain way. For more on this phenomenon/symptom:
  • Asperger traits & Engineers

    Read "Asperger Awareness: A Key to Success for IT & Technical Managers"

    Recognized a lot of colleagues, me included!
  • "Asperger's Syndrome is a developmental disorder"

    No, Asperger's a personality type that has been marginalized and ostracized by a vehemently anti-intellectual American culture that prefers it's loyal subjects remain ignorant and easily manipulated. It is not a disorder. A disorder is when you cannot function on your own. Most people with Asperger's are incredibly independent.

    As for the mental illness, the problem is not IT. The problem is that American's in general are so rich, so aloof, and so full of themselves, that they their own emptiness consumes them. American's feel entitled to material wealth, instant sexual gratification, and cheap foreign labor regardless of the costs to other nations, oppressed people, or the victims of the sex industry which includes sex trafficking. When you know in your heart that you are wrong, you will be depressed no matter how much you artificially elevate your self esteem with over indulgences.

    Fortunately, not all Americans are the same. Fortunately, the solution is within the reach of every individual and it starts with stepping down from your pedestal, letting go of your "entitlements," expressing equal love and compassion for all people. Especially those who are most in need of it.