I wrote this on the internal Google+ (remember?) instance when I was still employed at Google, after years of undiagnosed low-level depression suddenly became totally debilitating high-level depression as a result of.. well, let’s just say “management practices”. I’m sharing it a few years later as my slightly belated contribution to World Mental Health Day.
I still believe, especially as a result of the conversations this post started and from the numbers of people I know to have sought help from Google’s internal counselling service,, that depression and anxiety remain an epidemic in the high-pressure tech world. They will remain so at least until the constant pressure on even the most skilled workers to perform better, launch, overperform, “exceed expectations”, get promoted, work silly hours and so on from management who measure their own success solely in the form of numbers on a spreadsheet is removed. –mpk
I had to think for a while about whether this was something I should write about openly. In the end I decided that yes, I should, because it’s an important subject and it’s something that is likely to affect others. So here we go:
I spent just over three months at the beginning of this year on medical leave – half of it completely signed off from work, the other half working 50%. I was off because I was being treated for depression. Long-standing depressive tendencies going back quite a number of years, which finally got to a crisis point in January when I simply couldn’t face going into work one morning. The next day I saw the doctor, who signed me off and started me on escitalopram (an SSRI, if you’re interested in these things). It took several weeks, some temporary side effects to work through, and a doubling of the dose to take full effect. Once it did, things started to slowly get better, and with the doctor’s help and some support from my management I eventually went back to full time working a couple of weeks ago.
Since this whole thing started multiple conversations have made it clear to me that depression (often exacerbated by stress or by burnout) is more widespread in the tech world than I’d believed possible. There are probably quite a number of people at Google who are suffering unnecessarily. So here are some things you need to know:
Firstly, depression is not necessarily something that appears from nowhere and whacks you upside the head one day. It can also be something insidious that works its way into your brain over months or years, impacting your mood, your self-esteem and your relations with family, friends and colleagues. It makes it harder to enjoy things you previously enjoyed while simultaneously magnifying any setbacks or pitfalls out of all proportion. This situation can persist for years before something (stress, personal troubles, family issues, burnout..) finally triggers the crisis which pushes you into a hole deep enough that you aren’t going to get out of it without professional help.
Secondly, depression is just another illness. There has been a stigma around mental health for too long that has led people to deny to themselves and others that they have a mental health problem that needs help. In reality, more people than you might imagine (and among them some of the best, most creative, smartest people in history) have fought the same fight as you. It is not a sign of weakness or something you should be ashamed about. If you sprained your ankle you wouldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. Why treat your brain any differently?
Thirdly, and most importantly, there is help available. But to get that help you have to be prepared to be honest. If you go to see the doctor or to a therapist and try to downplay your symptoms it makes their life harder. Be open and describe how you have been feeling in as much detail as you can and it will help them to help you. I know it’s embarrassing to admit this stuff, but if you disguise it as, say, “I’m feeling exhausted” or “I can’t sleep properly” it will take longer to get to the point where you can be properly diagnosed and treated. I learned this to my cost – had I gone to the doctor earlier and been more open and honest about what was happening it’s quite likely that I could have avoided having three months out of the office.
Yes, it can be difficult to tell people truthfully and clinically that, say, you’ve found yourself thinking about suicide, but there is no shame in doing so. By describing your problems honestly you’re taking the first step towards making yourself better, and that is not weakness, that’s bravery and strength.
If you’re having problems coping, if you’re under stress that you’re not managing well, if you detect that shitty little imp of depression sitting on your shoulder whispering insults in your ear, talk to a professional sooner rather than later.
If you’re one of the others who is struggling with depression or who has struggled in the past, I wish you strength.