If you’re a software developer on an 5+ person team, chances are that at least one person on your team is experiencing mental illness, most often depression. Maybe you’re depressed, anxious, or experiencing difficulty working with others or being motivated. Or maybe it’s not so clear — inexplicable pain or physical symptoms from stress, family conflict, insomnia, … Regardless, about 1 in 5 adults is experiencing mental illness according to recent data published by the U.S. National Institutes of Mental Health, and it is unlikely that your team is an exception. In fact, one study found rates of mental illness in software engineers somewhat higher than the US baseline — a finding that surprises no-one I’ve mentioned it to.
Software developers seem less likely than most adults to seek treatment for their mental illness. Sadly, about two-thirds of people experiencing mental illness in the US will go untreated, even though treatment options exist and can be quite successful. In software engineering the situation may be far worse: the study I mentioned above found that, of the male software engineers experiencing mental health concerns, a little over 3% sought professional treatment. That’s one study, and many more ought to be done before drawing definitive conclusions. But,…
Why would only 3% Seek Treatment?
As a developer myself, I think we value our minds and our self-efficacy. We are problem solvers, capable of attacking the unknown. Surely if we find ourselves depressed or anxious we can mentally hack our way out of it… right?
I also believe there is real shame and fear of mental illness in software engineering. We are brain people. Software development is all about being smart. Being smart is our livelihood, and in some cases, our very identity. Confidence in our ability to take on big challenges is how we succeed. Somehow just seeking treatment feels like a threat to our very core.
Invest In Your Tools
I think there’s a different way to think about mental health for the software developer. Simply enough, you’ve got to invest in your tools. And way beyond your shell, your text editor (vim for me) or your coffee maker, your brain is your primary tool. Working with a professional doesn’t mean you’re failing. On the contrary, modern mental health treatments are quite effective, and seeking help means you’re smart enough to take an opportunity to better yourself and invest in your most important asset.