We need to talk about developers and depression

Depression started kicking my ass during my fifth year of college – the 'victory lap' as some like to call it. I was never a good student, but I was smart enough to fake my way through the first few years via cram sessions the night before each final. Unfortunately, I wasn't so smart that my strategy worked on 300-level computer science classes. I found myself nine semesters into college, and on the verge of failing. Compounding matters, I had just broken up with my girlfriend, was living alone for the first time, and most of my friends had graduated and left town.

I fell into a deep despair. Simple tasks felt like walking through Jell-O. Getting out of bed seemed impossible. The best part of my day was when I was unconscious, so I started sleeping 12 to 16 hours a day. I stopped going to class. I stopped going to work.

A friend of mine noticed my absence and sent a couple emails checking in on me. Too ashamed to admit to what was going on, I ignored him. A week later, he called me. It was about 2pm on a Wednesday and – still in bed – I ignored the call, rolled over and went back to sleep. A few minutes later, I heard a knock on my door.

"Hey Greg, are you in there? It's Bill."

Now, when you're forgetful like I am, there are certain life maintenance tasks that you just accept aren't going to happen and, back then, locking my doors was one of them. So when I heard the doorknob start to turn, I panicked. My mattress rested atop a cheap metal bed frame on plastic casters and had rolled about a half metre away from the wall. I pulled the covers over my head, silently slithered into that gap, and held my breath as Bill walked into my living room, poked his head into my bedroom, and then walked back out the front door. That's what shame feels like.

A life of two halves

Two years later, I mustered the courage to see a therapist and was diagnosed with ADD and type II bipolar. The ADD made sense. I could accept that. But bipolar… well that was what crazy people had, and I wanted no part of it. I lived the next two years stubbornly refusing to accept the diagnosis and continued a pattern of weeks of lethargy and despair punctuated by days of intense optimism and activity.

During those days I would be overcome with creativity. I'd dream up ideas for businesses and would have to build all those ideas that same night – partially because I didn't know if, in a few days' time, I'd even have enough energy to get out of bed. After a few frantic days, I'd begin my descent back into depression. It felt like climbing up a steep gravel incline. No matter how hard I spun my wheels, I slid further and further down.

It's not often when you can identify a specific moment and say, "That's the day when the trajectory of my life started to change" , but the day when I finally admitted defeat and set up an appointment with a psychiatrist was such a day. In October 2008, I started taking a mood stabiliser, and life has got steadily better ever since.

As a developer evangelist at Twilio, I spend a lot of time at conferences giving a talk called 'Developers and Depression'. Over the past year, I've been blown away by how many people in our community have come up to me and said, "I struggle with that too." I know of no formal study, but my guess is that the rate of mental illness amongst developers is several times that of the general population. Here are some cherry-picked symptoms of bipolar and ADD:

  • Hyperfocus Sure, it's hard to get started, but once you do, everything else blurs away
  • Racing thoughts
  • Pressured speech When the racing thoughts try to escape through the small hole of your mouth
  • Social isolation
  • Irregular sleep patterns Especially onset insomnia, where it is difficult to fall asleep and impossible to wake up
  • Thoughts of grandiosity Thinking the rules don't apply to you, that you can solve problems that have eluded mankind

If you're struggling with these symptoms, finding software development probably feels like coming home. Our industry accepts the socially isolated. We accommodate irregular sleep patterns and tolerate inconsistent bursts of productivity. We even seek out those with thoughts of grandiosity – as a famous Apple commercial once said:

... while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The developer community

The single greatest way that we could increase productivity and quality of life in our industry is to make talking about mental illness as acceptable as talking about high blood pressure. Despite being surrounded by peers struggling with similar conditions, shame and stigma cause developers to suffer alone.

Before I was diagnosed, I saw my behaviour as a character flaw. With no other explanation, I assumed that I was simply a lazy bastard, wasting the talents and opportunities afforded to me. When I did try to explain my condition, well-intentioned people told me that it was "all in my head" , that I should "try harder, " and to "look on the bright side".

Getting help

If I had cancer, no one would suggest that I simply "try harder". If I took insulin for diabetes, no one would say, "you're just using that as a crutch". Only when talking about the brain is "using a crutch" considered a bad thing. Anyone who's ever broken a leg will tell you that crutches are actually pretty useful when you're injured. But we have different rules for how we deal with illnesses of the brain compared to how we deal with problems below the neck, and because of that, thousands of our colleagues remain needlessly crippled by treatable conditions.

If you struggle with depression, anxiety or another mental illness, please consider seeing a professional. People often feel ashamed to admit that they see a therapist, but there's no need for this. Michael Jordan had a coach. David Beckham had a coach, too. A therapist's job is to help you live life better. If you're not ready to see a professional, please talk to a friend. If you have no one else to talk to, email me or find me on Twitter.

An encouraging response

Over the course of the past year, I've come to realise that I greatly underestimated the acceptance, compassion and empathy of those within our community. I was terrified the first time I got on stage, but I've been met with unimaginable encouragement after sharing my story, and I've heard scores of stories similar to my own – developers who suffered for years, got help, and saw their lives turn around.

If you are in the depths of despair, know that you are not alone. Know that there is hope, that things can get better no matter how dark it seems. The first step on the path out of the darkness is to talk about it.

Words: Greg Baugues Illustration: Ben Mounsey

Greg lives in Chicago and is a developer evangelist at Twilio. He is also the author of Developers and Depression. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 257.

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