Mental Health Talks
Ten years ago this month, I got up on stage at a tech conference for the first time to share my story as a software developer struggling with type 2 bipolar and ADHD.
Speaking about mental health is the most impactful thing I've done in my career. At least a hundred-thousand people have seen some version of my talk, and hundreds have reached out afterwards to say that it catalyzed them to book an appointment, start meds, or simply feel a little bit less shame. A non-zero number of people are alive today in part because they stumbled across my talk at a dark time in their life. It's an honor and privilege to have done work with that kind of impact.
I've given this talk dozens of times over the last decade, and there are many versions online, but the four below are the most meaningful to me.
My speaking career started in April, 2013 at MountainWest RubyConf. A colleague at TXI had recently passed away from an untreated mental illness, and I hoped that sharing my story might encourage other developers to get help. Our CEO, Josh Golden, encouraged me to submit a talk proposal to several tech conferences, and Mike Moore from MountainWest RubyConf was the first to accept it.
This is the rawest version of my talk that exists online. I was scared shitless. The voice in my head was saying, "what are you doing? why would you get up in front of a crowd and say this stuff?!" I was completely unprepared for how supportive and encouraging the community would be afterwards.
A few months later, Mark Littlewood invited me to speak at the Business of Software Conference. BoS was my dream conference. I had followed the conference for years, all my heroes had spoken there. It was a big deal to attend BoS, let alone speak. I hired my friend Katie Gore as a speech coach and we rehearsed in the 1,200 seat auditorium at my church. I read books like Confessions of a Professional Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, then freaked out when I learned that he'd be speaking at BoS the day before me.
Here's what Mark wrote about my talk afterwards:
Over the years, Seth Godin, Geoffrey Moore, Jennifer Aaker, Clayton Christensen, Kathy Sierra and other extraordinary people have taken the stage at BoS. Greg is the first speaker to ever get a standing ovation. Well deserved. This talk is heroic, funny, sad, dark, uplifting, brave, thoughtful, intelligent, inspiring and helpful talk confronting and explaining some of the stigma around mental illness we could ever put in front of the software community. As a result of this talk, a number of very high profile, role models in our community have been given the strength to share their experiences.
It's hard to overstate the impact that those 30 minutes at Business of Software had on my life and career.
In 2017, Saron Yitbarek invited me to speak at Codeland, an intimate event she created for folks early in their coding careers, and perhaps the best collection of technical storytellers I've seen to this day. I gave a version of my talk without slides that was shorter, lighter, and funnier than usual. (This is the one I'd recommend watching if you're here because someone shared this link with you.)
In September 2019, thanks to an invitation from my friend Penelope Phippen, I gave a talk at Google. The talk clocked in at around 40 minutes, followed by some Q&A. It's the most polished and complete version of my story that exists online. For ten years I've told the story of my deep depression in college, but here I also share about getting depressed while working at Twilio in 2017, how my manager, Ricky Robinett, supported me during that time, and how other managers can create supportive workplaces for employees who may be struggling.
I've tapered off speaking about this stuff since the pandemic hit. Speaking into a camera is less rewarding than getting on stage, and I haven't figured out how to authentically give this talk without paying an emotional toll the day before and after. I have no plans to ramp my speaking back up, but I'm not opposed to it either. I am encouraged that so many more people are speaking out about mental health today compared to ten years ago, and that resources like STIGMA app now exist. It doesn't feel quite so essential that I pursue this work anymore.
A huge thank you to so many of the people who have been a part of this journey. At every point in my story there was a friend or family member lifting me up. Some of those folks include:
- Rachel, my wife, who came alongside me at my lowest point, and has been there ever since.
- My mom, who was the amongst the first to talk to me about depression.
- My dad, who taught me how to speak in public.
- Josh Golden, Ricky Robinett, Rob Spectre, and Jeff Lawson – bosses who encouraged me to do this work on company time.
- Mark Littlewood, Mike Moore, Saron Yitbarek, Penelope Phippen and all the other organizers who did the work to bring together a speaker, an audience, and a camera – and who believed this story was important enough to create space on the schedule for it.
- Katie and John Gore, whose early feedback played a huge part in shaping the narrative of the talk.
- John Harris, Laurie Walsh, Mark Dollar, Dr. Getz, and the other mental health professionals who nursed me back to health and keep me there.
Finally, this work started because of Caleb Cornman: a kind, brilliant, and talented developer who worked with us at TXI but passed away before he could get the help he needed.
Featured photo by Betsy Webber at Business of Software, 2013.