2 min read

Devs and Depression

A lot people are blaming the US Attorney for Aaron Swartz’s suicide. Their outrage is justified, but Aaron struggled with depression for many years prior to the case. If we focus only on the US Attorney, we miss an opportunity to help thousands of developers struggling with the same problem.

Depression causes nearly half of all disability, it affects one in six, and explains more current unhappiness than poverty… Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as “real” enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (1 in 8) or AIDS (1 in 150). And there is, of course, the shame.

That’s from a post Aaron wrote five years ago, called Sick.

Software development is a good place for people with depression and bipolar. It accepts the socially isolated. It accommodates irregular sleep patterns and inconsistent bursts of productivity. It seeks those with the grandiosity to believe that they can solve problems others can’t, and exalts the ones crazy enough to believe that they can change the world.

If one in six of the general population suffers from depression, my guess is it’s one in four developers.

I’m one of them.

In 2006, I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder. For years I struggled with long bouts of crippling depression punctuated by moments of hyper-productivity and creativity.

I was fortunate. I got on the right meds on the first try and have been remarkably stable ever since. I still have days, today being one of them, when the depression comes back. But it’s days - not weeks, not months - and I’m no longer crippled by it.

Two months ago, Table XI lost one of our developers, Caleb Cornman, to untreated mental illness. He died of an unintentional drug overdose the day after he missed what would have been his first appointment with a psychiatrist to talk about his intermittent depression.

Caleb wasn’t comfortable talking about his depression. Neither was Aaron. In the same post, he said:

I have a lot of illnesses. I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness. (It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick.) I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse.

We need to bring depression out into the sunlight and let developers know that it’s okay to talk about it. We need to make mental illness as acceptable as diabetes or cancer. We need depressed developers to know that they are not lazy or weak, but are suffering from a treatable medical condition.

Below is a seven-minute talk I gave last month about my struggles with bipolar, Caleb’s death, and the prevalence of depression in the developer community.

If you are struggling with what might be depression, talk to someone. Find someone who has been through this before, or set up an appointment with a professional. If you have no one else to talk to, email me.