Someone on your team is depressed and isn’t getting help

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?

An artist's rendition of 3%

An artist’s rendition of 3% (ok, my rendition)

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.

 

Who doesn’t like feeling smart? (thanks, xkcd! [1386])

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.

2 Comments

  1. Joe the Software Manager

    Great article! As a leader of a team with more than 5 software developers I find it alarming that someone on my team may be depressed and I wouldn’t even know. What signs should I be looking for? If I believed someone needed help, how should I approach it with them? What first steps would you recommend?

    • Thanks Joe! It can be difficult to spot the signs. People with depression or other mental illness often don’t look sick, and they may be great or poor performers.

      Create an open environment to talk about mental health concerns. Stigma about mental health means that most people suffer in shame and feel alone. Make it okay to talk about difficult topics by being vulnerable about your own story. Be willing to listen when they begin talking about their own stories too. Find out how your employees are really doing, as people, not just as developers, and let them know that you’re interested in their well-being. I’d encourage you to watch this recent panel conversation from Prompt, of four developers talking about their own experience with mental health: http://vimeo.com/105802592.

      One potential way to spot some mental health concerns is by seeing behavior changes. Is your employee or colleague performing or behaving differently than they have been (worse or better)? Are they suddenly missing meetings or deadlines? These aren’t ways to definitively diagnose a mental illness, but as their manager, you’re in a unique position to ask them how they’re really doing when you see these changes occur.

      Next, be willing to suggest that they see a mental health professional. Just like you’d encourage someone potentially sick or in pain to get their symptoms checked out by a doctor, encourage someone who might be struggling to see a therapist where they can be properly screened and evaluated. This suggestion might be seen as insulting, again due to prevalent stigma, but the suggestion needs to be made nonetheless. Do so from a place of genuine care and concern, and again be willing to vulnerably share your own experiences and why you care for that person.

      Finally, online self-assessment tools exist that can help screen for common mental illnesses. These do not replace a professional diagnosis or treatment, but they can be a great starting place for someone who is unsure. One good overall online self-assessment can be found at: http://psychologytoday.tests.psychtests.com/take_test.php?idRegTest=3040.

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