Geek Sanity: It's Mental Help Week

Geek Mental Help Week. Starting Monday October 27 the week-long online event intends to raise awareness, pool resources, and spark discussion about mental health issues and well-being among geeks. OPINION.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor
Geek Mental Help Week

October began with Mental Health Awareness Week, and now it concludes with the tech-focused Mental Help Week.

Starting Monday October 27, the week-long online event intends to raise awareness, pool resources, and spark discussion about mental health issues and well-being among geeks.

Geek Mental Help Week features articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the Internet, with the aim to connect with people who are struggling, and those who care about them.

Find Geek Mental Help tweets at @geekmentalhelp and using the hashtag #geekmentalhelp.

There's an open call for participants on the GEEK Mental Help Week GitHub page, which has a submission guide for contributors; the guide is technical and doesn't limit content to any one kind of issue, like depression or ADHD.

The "help week" originated with UK-based Stuff & Nonsense, who found that colleagues in Australia were planning a similar idea.

After joining forces, S&N wrote:

Many of us struggle with mental health issues and many more than that are affected by them.

Over the last few months, I’ve watched some of my dearest friends and others suffer from the effects of mental health problems, either directly or indirectly.

I want to do something to help and Geek Mental Help Week is a first step. I really hope that you’ll get involved.

Tech's relationship with depression, suicide, ADHD, and frequent accusations of narcissism, sociopathy, borderline personality disorder, Aspergers and psychopathy is all well documented; the blade cuts both ways with a conventional assumption that tech makes you unhealthy as much as it attracts the unhealthy of mind.

See also:

It's with no small amount of anger that I feel the need to point out that a number of people seem to believe that coding, hacking and general work in tech can only be done by people with "something wrong" with them.

It's a myth designed to shame us, and those who love us, as we all struggle to simply live our lives with gifts and interests that set us apart, for better or worse.

Hidden suffering

We miss our friends terribly. We miss Ilya and Aaron and Barnaby, and so many more who should be here with us now.

Hacking is isolating, and the cost of keeping secrets is higher than anyone imagines.

Simultaneously, the pressure to succeed in tech is enormous, and terrifying, and money is a sick muse for many; bootstrappers can't afford help if they recognize that they need it. The ideal of success in tech is married to the terror of failure. Failure and online humiliation are in your shadow, always, even if you're healthy and resilient.

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.

Success cuts both ways. Those who succeed often find that the brass ring is seldom the anti-venom for dark thoughts that they'd hoped for. As a friend candidly told me, one who cashed in as part of a multi-billion-dollar sale, "Getting that kind of money... It breaks you."

Dr. Keely Kolmes, Psy. D., who specializes in the intersections of tech and mental health, elaborates on how much more personal it is for startup culture denizens and tech's constant high-stakes online endeavors — which I'll expand to include hackering, 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.

The signs and symptoms of metal health struggles can easily go undetected in tech culture. We're all trying so hard to show we're doing great, unaffected by haters, and "on top" — and any sign of distress or unhappiness typically results in painful reinforcement, such as unfollows.

I believe in what Mental Help Week is doing. In December 2012 at German hacker conference CCC (29c3), I presented Hackers and Harm Reduction, the result of working with hackers, high-risk populations, counselors and psychologists to provide a beginning model for reducing the harm of high-risk practices inherent in hacking and security research. "We don't need any more suicides," I told the attendees, who are also a whole lot of people I care about, only two weeks before I had to write that we'd lost Aaron Swartz.

The very next talk I was scheduled to present on harm reduction in hacking communities in regard to drugs, sex, personal well-being and informed consent was censored by a feminist organization, and I think that this only worsens problems that are then compelled to stay hidden. There was a disinformation campaign against me afterward, trying to media-sell that I was attempting to "teach rape" to hackers. On a good day, I'd be remiss to say that this broke my faith in certain kinds of people, and what was said about my talk, and my intentions, hurt me deeply.

But the experience only underscores why I strongly support Geek Mental Help Week: I don't think we should ever stop fighting for the people we care about, no matter how much the fight itself hurts sometimes.

I think it will still benefit everyone to know what the signs of depression and distress are. I recommend the following resources:

Dr. Kolmes added:

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.)

Lastly, in my hope to contribute to Geek Mental Help Week, I also want to provide the mental health resources offered in my book The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy. The resources are in a section of the chapter on fighting back against revenge porn, because it's no small emotional and mental trial to face down a vicious online privacy violation — and fight it.

In addition to information about recognizing the signs when your feelings start to overtake your mental health, those resources include:

Even the most antagonistic or curmudgeonly of us ends up being there for a friend in need at some point in this era of the Internet. Sometimes it's an online friend we don't even know in "real life."

As it has for me, maybe this quote can shine a little light along the way: 

"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any." 

-Alice Walker

Photo by Kelly Nighan, used under its Creative Commons license Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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