Are You More Than Okay: The State of Mental Health in Tech in 2016
Our efforts in supporting mental health must be comprehensive.
One of the most important things we can build is community, and it’s beautiful to think about how much tech diversity and inclusion has grown in past few years. We’ve made huge strides covering intersections like race, class, gender and sexual identity. But we’ve only touched the surface when it comes to mental health.
The tech industry is ruthless (not just for software engineers). You can feel like a cog in a machine that just might get rewarded… after burning out from dedicating your entire life to your career. There are very few safe spaces to discuss mental health and practice self-care, and in tech, we’re conditioned to refrain from acknowledging our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We tip-toe around the issue by promoting fun, social activities in the workplace – occasionally offering weekly yoga classes. But addressing mental health also means talking about the ugly, and providing direct resources for people to be more than okay.
Mental health isn’t just mental illness – it’s part of being human. The more we acknowledge the role of mental health in our industry, the more we can help people get access to better healthcare, retain and support underrepresented employees, and build an authentic culture of inclusion.
Making mental health part of tech diversity
Talking about it is the first step we all need to take together. In an ideal world, we could be open about mental health with everyone. We get closer to that world when we speak out about it and build communities that embrace vulnerability. We are not alone – more people are sharing their stories. Through storytelling, we can normalize mental health, dismantling the stigmas associated with therapy and medication. In the tech industry, we share our stories through conferences and blog posts. We should talk about mental health in these spaces, and make sure that people who share are being respected, protected, credited, and compensated.
I asked some friends who openly speak about their mental health to share why they do so. Here’s what they had to say:
“When I started my recovery it was difficult to explain to the people in my life why I may have seemed irritable, erratic, and out of control. I realized after some time the reality is most people don’t understand how common eating disorders — and many other mental health disorders — are, let alone the symptoms they present. I made it my goal not only to educate people in our community but also reach out to those who are suffering with my story.” – Justine Arreche, visual designer and Prompt speaker
“For me it’s important to adjust expectations and manage workload with coworkers during a depressive episode, so they know I’m dependable and understand that my depression doesn’t mean I don’t like the company or the work I’m doing, or that I’m lazy. My coworkers have become some of my most enthusiastic supporters, and often encourage me to attend to self care even when I naturally want to just push through, which would eventually result in burning myself out.” – Madalyn Parker, web developer and mental health advocate
“It was something I had a lot of opinions on and talking about mental health felt less empty than technical talks. It was so very frustrating to get into therapy, and I don’t think most people who haven’t gone through therapy realize how bad it is. And I really wanted to be a woman who did talks because it’s good career development. Even as something to further my career, I still needed to talk about something I cared about, because it shows when you’re talking.” – Laura Ku, developer and mental health advocate
“Mental health is a powerful issue in the tech community. As people who consistently use our brains to create things and solve problems, it’s imperative for us to keep our mental muscles in shape. The first step is being open about there being an issue. We need to end the stigma of mental health in tech and that’s why I help to organize mhprompt.org – we need to to get the word out on the existence of these issues, that’s it okay to say “I’m suffering” and to reach out for help.” – PJ Hagerty, programmer and Prompt organizer
I started openly writing and speaking about my experiences with mental illness, specifically obsessive-compulsive disorder, self-harm, depression, and anxiety, three years ago. I grew up in a low-income, single parent, Vietnamese refugee household in Toronto struggling to find effective, long-term treatment. University was hard – I had to constantly fight for academic accommodations and mental health services. I was told by academic advisors to just work harder. I was put on waiting lists that I only got off once I graduated. Later, it was difficult to find treatment as an intern with no health benefits; I remember trying to hold back panic attacks in vacant meeting rooms and washroom stalls, and struggling to explain my time off due to suicide attempts.
Being open and introspective about my mental illness has helped me to accept and embrace that facet of my identity. It has helped me to better advocate for my own support and treatment. Without the compassion and support of countless individuals and communities, I wouldn’t be alive today.
Showcasing projects, initiatives, and apps
Through mental health education, we also create more safe spaces for people to be their authentic selves. Technology itself can help push this education to make real, effective change; for example, my open source project if me helps people share their stories with friends, family, medical professionals and others. In the past three years, I’ve learned so much about the challenges and joys of building and maintaining an open source community. This year, the project was featured on the CodeNewbie podcast, and we also received a community grant from Linebreak. Here are some other amazing, life-saving projects, initiatives, and apps that have made mental health more open; a lot of these projects are not-for-profit, and many need monetary support.
Projects and initiatives
OSMI (Open Sourcing Mental Illness) is a nonprofit providing education and resources on supporting mental wellness in tech and open source communities. They raised over $20k this year on Indiegogo to fund workshops, video series, and printed guidelines for employees, HR professionals, and executives to promote mental wellness in the workplace.
Everybody Has A Brain is a community, blog, podcast, and YouTube channel that educates people on the importance of daily mental health. They’ve published two books, “The Brainly”, a collection of long-form articles and interviews, and “The Acceptance Field Guide”, a practical guide on overcoming fear, anxiety, and addiction.
The Icarus Project is a support network and education project with an emphasis on advancing social justice. They offer workshops, training, and talks. They’ve published various books, including “Madness & Oppression: Paths to Personal Transformation and Collective Liberation“ and “Friends Make the Best Medicine: A Guide to Creating Community Mental Health Support Networks”.
Tessera Collective and Brown Sisters Speak are nonprofit organizations for women of colour that provide private peer-to-peer support on Facebook. Both organizations showcase community voices through live chats and panel talks. Personally, they have been a source of endless solidarity and support.
Online SOS is a nonprofit that provides free and direct services to people experiencing any type of online harassment, including emergency funds, mental health support, and crisis counseling. They recently raised $7800 through Fund Club!
Prompt is a collective of speakers in the tech who give talks about mental health. It’s a community that I am proud to be part of. From mental health research to eating disorders, our speakers cover a broad range of topics. We’re always open to new speakers, and pay for conference expenses.
Doll Hospital is an art and literature print journal on mental health that focuses on including intersectional narratives, including race, class, gender identity, sexuality, colonialism, chronic illness, and disability. They are looking for contributors!
Koko is an anonymous social network to share your thoughts and get emotional support from people around you. This app is proof that we can show empathy to one another as strangers.
7 Cups is a free, anonymous and confidential online text chat with trained listeners, therapists, and counselors.
Headspace is a subscription-based app that will help you get your daily fix of guided mindfulness meditation. Meditation can feel intimidating – this app does a great job of making it fun and approachable.
Talkspace is a subscription-based app to talk to therapists and counselors via text and video chat. This app is great when you are in need of immediate therapy.
Joyable is a subscription-based app that matches you with a personal coach to help you overcome social anxiety through activities taken from cognitive behavioural therapy. Social anxiety is treatable, it shouldn’t be dismissed as a personality trait.
Feerless is a Chrome plugin with crowdsourced trigger warnings on Netflix. Triggers have a profound effect on mental health. Warnings are important because they protect victims of trauma.
Concrn is an app to send compassionate, non-confrontational responders to help people in crisis in your neighbourhood. The app is currently active in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The responders often play music!
More work needs to be done
The possibilities for mental health technology are endless, as treating and maintaining mental health is holistic. Mental health is more than just being okay. It’s more than having a backup plan when you’re feeling low. Mental health is every mood, emotion, and thought.
We’ve made a lot strides this year. People are talking about mental health more openly, but there’s still a long ways to go. To start, tech employers need to provide their employees with a variety of mental healthcare plans. Mental illness isn’t just mood and anxiety disorders. Mental illness is incredibly broad and diverse. We also need tools for employees to better sort and compare counsellors, therapists, psychologists, and other specialists; what’s stopping a lot of people from seeking mental healthcare is the stress of finding the right mental health worker.
It’s also important to integrate mental health as part of employee culture. One way to do so is to empower employees: for example, I co-founded the office wellness committee at Indiegogo. We have created a mental health and wellness resource guide, crowdsourced from employees. We advocate for more quiet and private spaces for people to practice self-care. We have a Slackbot to encourage people to take a break. One individual even started a daily meditation group, and we’re also partnering with mental health leaders to organize education workshops. But before you can empower employees to talk about about mental health, employers need to build their trust to do so; “Mental Health in Tech: Guidelines for Mental Wellness in the Workplace” by OSMI outlines the necessary steps that need to be taken from HR to ensure that employees in the US are protected.
I would personally like to see companies publish data on employees who have mental illness or any other disability. Due to the sensitive nature of the data, the data should be anonymized. This data would quantify the importance of supporting this demographic, and also help to open mental health discussions in the workplace.
To this point, tech diversity initiatives themselves need to amplify the voices of mental health advocates. Mental health advocacy needs diversity and inclusion too. As we increase and broaden the discussion, we need to acknowledge intersectional experiences and address the barriers to mental health access in oppressed communities. Within our industry, we need to support marginalized individuals whose mental health is severely impacted by trauma and oppression.
Ultimately, our efforts in supporting mental health must be comprehensive. “In the world of tech, it is becoming increasingly imperative to address the unique mental fitness needs of employees and entrepreneurs,” said Dr. Emily Anhalt, psychological consultant for tech companies; her work helps companies increase productivity, boost morale, develop emotional health programs and foster successful work-life harmony. Tech companies need to put in the work to overhaul and strengthen their culture, and empower their employees to do the same.
Hugs and hearts to Madalyn Rose, Justine Arreche, Laura Ku, PJ Hagerty, and Dr. Emily Anhalt for sharing!