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

In 2011 tech increased its awareness about depression and suicide, highlit by tragedy.
Written by Violet Blue, Contributor

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 Healthand theAmerican 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.

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