Hidden away in the corner

Triggers: depression, suicide

I was saddened to hear the news of Aaron Swartz death last night. Aaron wasn’t really a mentor to me in any way. I was never really a big follower of the free culture and free software movement. What bothered me the most, was how the death occurred.

On January 11, 2013, Aaron took his own life.

There are a lot of theories out there by those searching for answers. Some believe it was the looming court case, or the harsh sentencing that might follow. But far more unsurprisingly, Aaron suffered from a common condition. Depression.

I debated with myself for a long time about whether or not I should talk about this. Its a sensitive area, with many lost souls, broken hearts and fractured minds. Just writing about it brings me to a place I’d rather not be. But its time to talk, because we can’t let this tragedy continue any more.

Mental illness is frighteningly prevalent in the software and technology industry*. And even more frightening is the fact that we are so isolated from each other that you really have no idea how bad it is.

It might come as no surprise that I succumbed to an episode of depression early last year. Thankfully, the bottom I bounced on for a while was just above what one might consider “at immediate risk of suicide”, but still enough to impact my quality of life.

What was surprising to me, was that many I have shared this detail with, have gone through the same thing.

I’ll say that again, because its really important.

There appears to be a far-above-average rate of depression and other mental illness in this field.

That is tragic.

Sadly, I’m just another hacker in the broader scheme of things. I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not even close to having answers that might help everyone get out of this. There are no concrete “cure” for depression. Its a cancer of the mind. There is therapy to help people untie the knot their heads have gotten into. There is medication to make it seem as though its not there. But its often up to those who live their lives to ensure they don’t get into it, or if they do get into it, are able to get out of it.

There’s only one thing I know for certain.

Software and Technology is a high-stakes, high-stress, hard-work industry. We are all amazing pioneers in one way or another, and that’s what society has come to expect of us. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between the product of the inputs, and the perception of the process from others.

Advancing technology is really hard to get right, and requires lots of concentration to fit all the details together. As such, it isn’t really conductive to the kinds of social interaction that you might get in other fields of work. Many of those who work in this industry tend to be “hidden away and out of sight” – either in their basement, their bedroom, their office, their cubicle, or wherever. The means of interaction becomes a charade behind an IRC handle, or an email address, or an account of a bugtracker, or a forum or blog. Its the most productive way of working, so we tend to reward it. But it is also the fastest way to begin to lose touch, and then eventually, “lose it”. The stress increases, and the coping resources are already at critically low levels.

Perhaps that insight might be useful to someone else. But there’s not much I know or can say about why we are like that, or what we can do to ensure that it doesn’t lead to tragedy.

All I can say is that I really regret for waiting until the conversation I never had before talking about it.

* I do not mean this to say that mental illness and suicide is any more tragic in software than it is in any other field or walk of life. Any preventable loss of life is tragic, no matter what the reason, circumstances or cause.

edit: I don’t want to imply that every person in the industry had or has depression. Thankfully, there are some of us who were lucky enough to have never been there.

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5 thoughts on “Hidden away in the corner

  1. I am not sure that there is more depression in software industry, and I would wait on data before taking that as granted. However, that’s not a important point, as even if you are not in the most stressful position in the world, you have stress and that’s the important thing. Even if others don’t, I think the passion deployed by some people is also the cause of the stress. And having a complete view doesn’t help, since you tend to see some defects where others don’t, adding more pressure to fix, etc

    From what I know, the work at Canonical is quite fast paced, there is lots of pressure and this require to be able to stop from time to time. There is a reason why we have holidays and vacations, and law ( at least in my country ) against working too much.

    Another important point is indeed the fact that working remotely mean that you lack some kind of socialisation, which can be quite hard to cope with. So maybe that’s also a point to look at, make sure there is a proper work / non work separation. You will find lots of web sites about the topic, and I would frankly have expected someone at Canonical to take care of that and to help you on that point. Stuff like “making sure you have a dedicated room for work separate from the rest of the flat”, so you can separate work from non work, “making sure you see people and do not work too much, by using a clock”

    Finally, one important point that is often overlook is the light. During winter, lots of people tend to be depressed, due to the lack of light. That’s why there is more suicide in nordics countries ( IIRC, never checked ), why the alcohol is more difficult to get there, etc.

    there is various things to try before taking medication, to restore a proper work/life balance, and you were right to speak of it, because you are not the only one to face the issue ( neither the first, nor the last ), and seeking help of others is the right thing to do.

    And if you see someone that look depressed, you should keep in mind that at his place, maybe you would have wanted someone to help…

    1. > Finally, one important point that is often overlook is the light. During winter, lots of people tend to be depressed, due to the lack of light. That’s why there is more suicide in nordics countries ( IIRC, never checked ), why the alcohol is more difficult to get there, etc.

      Living at night, quite literally, drove me insane. I can definitely see what you mean there.

  2. I am touched and saddened, by this post and reply… I was just looking for some compiz enhancements and stumbled in on this… I am sorry to hear of the death of anyone. And I would agree that it seems that more and more cases of depression are popping up and getting more extreme then ever before. The scene of this world is ever changing. My hats off to you for this post. I also agree that this is an important topic to discuss.

    I am not writing to debate anything, but just to share a solution that I have found that provides me and millions more comfort for these situations. http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/s/r1/lp-e?q=depression&p=par.

  3. I share the above sentiments. May he have found peace.

    On a happier note, found some old favorites and some new features in 13.04 raraing update today. Many thanks Sam and the rest of you that work so hard to make compiz so special.

    As always, my thanks and gratitude to each and everyone of you brilliant people.

  4. I share and many times feel the same way. As a programmer, I find that I am more stressed when dealing with code related, programming related, system related work and yes, I have gotten to the point where I did not know what I wanted, what I was here for and a feeling of incredible loneliness to the point of having literal heart pain. It might come with the territory, but one thing I have found that helps is to also do what I call “human activities”. This are as simple as going for a walk on the park, beach, hill, talking to friends (if any), or doing adrenaline things like roller skating, climbing, etc.. Anything that is the opposite of working in a programmed world of code.

    Since I live in a city that is very stressful 24/7, I tend to do exercise (Which I did not do back then and it has helped me a lot, including yoga), Tend to go out more, see the stars, walk in parks, basically clear my mind and body.

    This might all sound like hippy stuff but in my country and in my life is what I have right now and it has helped me a lot to coup with the problems regarding this work style / life style choice of being a programmer.

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