“Here’s To The Crazy Ones”: Stigma Against Mental Illness in Tech

It seems to have occurred to no one that if we could stop punishing people for being mentally ill, and for speaking up about it, we could actually get the "conversation" we claim to want.

by Shanley Kane on August 31st, 2015

Content notice: discussion of mental illness, suicide, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia and exercise addiction, trauma, severe online harassment, threats and stigma.

It is undeniable, statistical, and evidenced by lived experiences that tech workers have mental illnesses. Marginalized individuals in tech — more likely to have mental health problems due to oppression, trauma, abuse and inability to access equitable care and support — are left particularly vulnerable. We have all heard stories of prominent technologists and founders killing themselves, and outside of tech media’s mantis-gaze many more suicides go unreported or kept private. In a collaborative study from doctors and researchers at University of California San Francisco, University of California Berkeley, and Stanford, 72% of entrepreneurs reported mental health problems, far higher than reports from a comparison group and the general population.

Yet though mental illness suffuses our industry, our peers, our communities, the stigma against it is implacable, enormous; many of the writers who have written on mental illness for Model View Culture write anonymously, because being known to have a mental illness, especially as a marginalized person in tech, often means social ostracization, personal and professional isolation, ableist harassment, and the loss of current jobs, future employment and overall career opportunity, with consequences that can follow for decades.

Why does mental illness seem particularly loathed and invisible here, in an industry known to create or exacerbate mental illness with unrealistic working hours, enormous pressures, rampant abuse and alcohol culture? Do we really envision humanity ascendent, at the top of Maslow, as unbreaking software? Though the technical infrastructure itself ripples with outages, breaks out in contagion, strains under security holes, falls off the Internet — does the Turing Test in fact test us?

Maybe it is instead that in a hell-mix of libertarianism, Objectivism, futurism, white supremacy and misogyny we MUST cling to the stigma; after all, where would the meritocracy be without it? What to hold our white male hacker hero in such contrast, all logic and drive, white and masculine, where mental illness is feminine, racialized, irrational, impotent, flailing?

Regardless, all calls to “talk more about mental illness” stay insincere at best, when people in our industry are regularly and fantastically punished for even the rumor of insanity.

A woman, floating or levitating above a bed, dark lights reaching from the mattress while she floats in light.

Photo CC-BY Arielle Croitor, cropped and filtered.

I am a woman in tech, a queer femme, and a founder, and I have been called crazy, delusional and insane by top venture capitalists, journalists, CEOs, and figureheads in our industry for years. I am frequently told that I should be locked in a padded cell, involuntarily committed, or should just “go ahead” and drink bleach/jump off a bridge/overdose to put me out of the presumed misery of my mental illnesses. Recently, I got so sick of being told to kill myself multiple times each day that I left social media. (To my frequent readers: Don’t worry, I am fine, simply taking a much needed break, thank you for your support and love.)

Of course, this punishment is not a response to my actual mental illnesses, but because I fight the very structure of this industry, and that in itself is seen as insanity. The fact that I’ve spoken openly for years about mental illness provides a convenient, if transparent, narrative as well a cudgel to abuse me. But my question stands: In such a climate, how do we expect to have a conversation about mental illness, especially one that isn’t dominated by cis white men?

Since I suffer highly visible and public abuse and stigma literally every daily, let me take the chance to tell you about my actual life having mental illness, working in tech and founding a company in tech, on my own terms. Here are some things I know: Some people become mentally ill over the course of starting their companies. Some people who start companies will never have mental illness. Some people, like me, were mentally ill long before, and will be long after.

I have at various points in my life been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. I am in long-term recovery from anorexia nervosa and exercise addiction which left me weighing less than 80 pounds at age 19, with a weak and batty heart that could’ve gone out at any point. In addition, like many women in tech, I have a history of profound trauma, including being the victim of domestic violence, stalking and rape, which shapes my interior world in powerful and unyielding ways.

Here are some specific ways that my mental illness, trauma history, PTSD and related treatment affects my experience and performance running a company:

  • When my OCD is flaring up (it gets better or worse depending on a variety of factors), it can take longer than it “should” for me to complete repetitive tasks like accounting and bookkeeping, filling out paperwork, mailing checks, etc. I often engage in “checking” behaviors which means that where many people might review a piece of material or information once or twice, I will review it 10-12 times. I can find it both distressing and inordinately time-consuming to perform tasks that other business owners may be able to complete quickly and comfortably. This can at times compromise my efficiency deeply.
  • I have to take several hours out of each week to travel to and attend therapy, and have at times had to take up to six hours a week during business hours to see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals. Sometimes therapy or psychiatric appointments can be very difficult and painful for me, and I find it hard to work afterwards. This is time that I could be devoting to my company, but instead is devoted to the draining and sometimes unrewarding work of addressing my mental health.
  • In trying to treat anxiety exacerbated by extreme online terrorism and stalking, I have been trying to find a medication that will work to relieve my anxiety. The negative side effects of experimenting with new drugs, and lengthy processes of adjusting to them, have caused severe appetite loss and depression which has affected my physical health, my ability to maintain a consistent mental state, and my ability to feel creative and confident in my work. Trying to find treatment that will work may take me another six months or more, and I may continue to experience severe side effects throughout this process.
  • Due to intrusive obsessive thoughts that accompany my anxiety and OCD, I worry excessively about making mistakes that seem minor to others but to me in can seem terrifying and threatening: i.e. spelling and grammar errors, broken links, incorrect quotes, etc. I also worry excessively about relatively unlikely scenarios for my company, including having my office burn down or flood, experiencing severe illness or injury, being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, or dying in an accident. These intrusive thoughts compromise both my ability to focus and make it hard to believe in potential good futures.
  • The great responsibility and obligation I feel for my customers and community is a great honor, but can also make me feel insecure, undeserving and depressed, aggravating my anxiety and tanking my self esteem. Since OCD and anxiety can leave me feeling worn out, depressed and down on myself, it can be hard to maintain the level of confidence that I need to expand my business, make risky but healthy choices at work, and experiment with new methodologies and approaches. Thus, I know my mental illness to specifically hold me back from achieving the company’s full potential.
  • My trauma history means that I can find the constant violence and abuse that accompanies my job as a hyper-visible woman in tech much more difficult to bear, as it brings back painful and unnecessary memories, and I often feel triggered, trapped and reliving bad experiences as flashbacks, physical symptoms and extreme distraction.
  • Social anxiety (created and exacerbated by the constant threats I experience) makes it hard for me to meet new people, build partnerships, and establish new connections, as well as join and participate in existing communities. This affects my business in many ways, as I run a digital and print media company but am a social recluse and largely retired from public life at a young age.
  • Due to the combination of mental illness, past trauma and ongoing trauma, I experience burn out not as a discrete event, solvable by vacations or a better work/life balance, but as a constant state which floods and recedes. Burn out symptoms can be unpredictable and prevent me from working as consistently as I desire.

These are only a few examples, and mainly intended to clear up misconceptions about the mental illnesses I personally suffer, to participate in a dialogue about how mental illness impacts me in my specific role as a founder, and to document how ongoing trauma, stigma and abuse exacerbates my mental illnesses and makes achieving better mental health conditions increasingly unlikely for me.  

You’ll notice from my notes that I, like many other marginalized people suffering from mental illness, don’t or cannot separate the mental illness from the effects of past and ongoing trauma and stigma. I cannot parse it out from anything else any more, if I ever could at all. The anxiety stems from the trauma and makes the trauma worse, and fear of the trauma at times is more unbearable than trauma itself. The way I am stigmatized and the ableist and misogynist abuse I receive dramatically lowers my chances of a good long-term mental health outcome. My life as a hypervisible woman in tech reverberates with violence, the strumming chord through my past and future, the string in the theory. It is impossible to know where one stops and the other begins, rather they ebb and flow together in ways that deeply impact my overall and long-term levels of happiness and fulfilment, and have a direct and specific impact on my work both today as a founder and in my previous work in the field.

People like to say they love their companies. It’s like their baby. It’s some almost spiritual challenge, a marathon or something.

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

The long climb.

I think that’s bullshit. People ask me if I like my job. My job is a deeply fulfilling hell.

Is that liking it, or loving it? Do I love my company? Or does it more feel physically attached to me, living inside of me, having its own dreams and desires, taking me for the ride?

One thing I do know is that running your own company you see yourself clearly in all your downfalls and weaknesses. It is quantified in numbers and failed milestones. You learn so deeply the flaws and incompetencies in you.

I feel every mistake I’ve made. 

And I’ve gotten more familiar with myself, and the mental illness that’s part of me, than at any point in my life.   

People have very ableist ideas of founders as being strong or fearless or smart or brave, instead of as people who are flawed and sometimes sick. As a feminist activist and non-consensually hypervisible “public” figure in technology, I feel pressured to be some kind of feminist hero or tank, when really I am mostly small, scared and breakable, and wanting to feel better. These ableist expectations of me justify abandonment of me even as I am harassed and stigmatized for being mentally ill: So many of you watch me get the shit beat out of me daily, but the idea of me as powerful and strong means you never have to say a word.  

I share all this to assert only two things: that the discussion about mental illness in tech, especially in the context of the experiences of marginalized tech workers, cannot happen without lifting the stigma around it; and that improvement of the lives of people with mental illnesses in this field will not come without a cessation of stigma and abuse.

In all of the news articles and fluff pieces, it seems to have occurred to no one that maybe if we could stop punishing people for being mentally ill, and for speaking up about it, we could actually get the “conversation” we claim to want.