Depression in Software Development

It appears I am 4 years late to this, but I watched a fantastic video of Greg Baugues speaking on depression at the Business of Software Conference.

During his talk, he discusses mental illnesses in the software development industry that often go unnoticed due to our general mentalities. Namely:

Now, this isn’t something that would usually catch my attention. As a matter of fact, I can’t even remember why I started watching it. However, he immediately starts by telling his own story. And stories are engaging.

He goes on to tell about all his struggles in school, and then later in his career. He describes a form of Bipolar Disorder that I was not even aware existed: Type II. He describes it as a more slow burning type, plagued by long periods of depression and “laziness” with brief stints of explosive productivity.

What is intriguing about his talk is how many software developers are suffering from these disorders and coming to him about it.

It is well known that the software industry attracts a high number of intelligent introverts. I never really thought about our “type” as being prone to anxiety, ADHD, or depression though. After all, we are stereotyped as mathy mad scientists that change the world at a young age. But he makes a good point that in an industry where introversion, late nights, crazy schedules, and productivity bursts are the norm, people with these disorders will sort of be able to blend in better and make it by.

In fact, I have only ever met a single software developer who had ADHD, who took medicine for it.

But I guess that is the problem though isn’t it? We all have family, friends, and acquaintances who battle these mental illnesses, some treated, some not. But we really don’t hear about this affecting software developers.

I suppose we see ourselves as successful, intelligent, specialist craftsmen of a sort in this industry, and see ourselves and brethren (and sistren?) as immune to these issues. These disorders are what plagues people that haven’t even made it this far, that never had the concentration to get through high school math classes, let alone into a career of software development, right?

Well, no.

He tells stories of himself and others about how they managed to drift through jobs, how they would start off strong, and then fall back into their rut.

The worst part is that most of their suffering was internal to them, closed off from the outside world. All the outside world sees is the “laziness” of one delivering projects late, not showing up to work, or being generally motivated.

Sure enough, I have known a few developers having these sort of symptoms. Some had gambling issues, others would struggle to deliver their projects on time. Yet others, upon becoming remote, seemed to lose productivity entirely. I had never considered that these people might have a more critical, underlying disorder. It’s so easy to just write them off as lazy instead.

I think the biggest revelation since Greg started discussing this stuff out in the open is the number of software developers coming to him to relate their own stories, and the number of people in the audience who raised their hand admitting struggling with some of these issues.

Above all, Greg encourages people experiencing these issues to reach out and see a therapist. After all, it could change your life, like it did his.

It is absolutely refreshing to see somebody sharing a personal story at a technical conference, and putting the spotlight on mental illnesses in our industry.

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