Talking About Mental Health is Important

(If you’re only here for the technical content, please feel free to skip this post – but I hope you’ll read anyway.)

Imagine you’re building a BI solution, and you encounter problem behavior. You’re not sure if it’s an actual bug, but it is keeping you from achieving your goals. You search online, but can’t find any knowledge base articles, blog posts, or documentation that help. When you try to talk to other developers, none of them wants to talk about it, none will admit to having the same problem, and it seems like they treat you differently after you asked, like they think less of you because you couldn’t solve this problem on your own. Over time you develop workarounds to build a solution that meets your requirements. Some of the workarounds are quite elaborate, which impacts the performance and maintainability of your solution, but because no one will talk about the underling problems, you don’t have any way to communicate the impact of the workarounds to other stakeholders. It feels like everything is harder than it needs to be.

That sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? Now imagine if this was life in general, not just a BI project.

I’ve suffered from clinical anxiety and depression since I was in my early teens. Both the anxiety and the depression have come and gone over the years, but each has also grown worse as I’ve aged. And to make things worse, until I was well into my 40s I didn’t realize what was going on.

I thought it was just me. I thought that I was just having a harder time doing things that were easier for others. I felt lessened, and inadequate. I felt broken.

But that was only when the depression and anxiety were present. When they receded, it was hard to remember how hard everything had been.

If this sounds strange, think back to the last time you were seriously ill, or injured[1]. The injury or illness was an ever-present part of your life, making it difficult to do some things and impossible to do others. If your recovery took more than a few weeks, it may have been difficult to even remember a time when you hadn’t needed to structure your life around your disability. But once you’ve recovered, even though you can remember the time you were sick or hurt, how well can you actually remember what it was like, how it actually felt at the time? It’s hard, isn’t it?

I didn’t start figuring out what was going on until mental health started being part of public discourse – until people started talking about it. Sadly, this typically meant some celebrity had taken his own life, and for a few weeks the news would talk about how the veneer of happiness and success had masked his sadness all along. Sometimes there would be meaningful discussion, but usually the news coverage was about as informed and meaningful as news coverage of complex technical issues, with all that implies.

In addition to this increasing public dialog, there were four specific resources that were incredibly helpful to me, and which empowered me to look differently at my own mental health:

  1. Actor Wil Wheaton’s epic blog post about depression: This raw and personal story had me in tears, because so much of it was my own story. The details are different, and it’s obvious that Wil’s struggles are more difficult than my own, but the themes and patterns were incredibly familiar.
  2. “The Anxiety Chronicles” on The Lily: This is a series of short articles by different women, each with the tagline “this is how I experience anxiety.” Again, while the details are different, many of these stories have strong and stark parallels with my own anxiety.
  3. The growing discussion about mental health in the tech field: I started noticing this trend this year, and I’m seeing more and more of it. When I spoke at the Craft Conference in Budapest there were a bunch of sessions including this one about depression and burnout from the amazing Gitte Klitgaard. And there is a wonderful community on Twitter including April Wensel and her “compassionate coding” efforts, and Microsoft’s Ann Johnson and Shona Chee.  Although I call out these three leaders by name, it’s not just them that help. What helps the most is that there is a discussion, an open and public discussion, that lets people know that it is ok to struggle, that it’s ok to admit that you’re struggling, and that there are people who want to help.
  4. Friends, especially younger friends: Most of the people in my martial arts community are much younger than I am, and it appears that the younger generation hasn’t picked up all the negative baggage that my generation did. Whether it is authors Joseph Brassey or Ed McDonald, coach and instructor Kaja Sadowski, or any of the awesome young people I train with, having people I know and respect who are openly discussing their trials and tribulations is incredibly valuable – because it shows me that I’m not alone in the challenges I face.

This is why I decided to write this post, and why I’m glad you took the time to actually read it. If even one person reading this post has felt as alone and lost as I have felt, and now realizes that it’s not just them, if this post can help even half as much as Wil Wheaton’s post helped me, that it was worth writing.

Please understand that this isn’t just about talking – I’ve taken concrete steps to improve my mental health. I exercise every day. I prioritize getting enough quality sleep every night. I eat well, and cook most of the food I eat. I quit drinking, and use a HappyLight during the winter months. I’m working to find a therapist to help me build better coping mechanisms for those times when life is overwhelming. I practice mindful self-care every day, building habits and routines when life is good so that I can keep them going when it is not.

But those steps only go so far in isolation. Knowing that there are other people out there going through what you’re going through is invaluable and empowering. Having a community, however loosely-knit, can make the bad times feel less lonely.

Don’t worry – I’ll keep posting about technical topics like Power BI dataflows, and metadata. But please realize that when things are dark and times are hard, those posts will be made possible in large part by the “elaborate workarounds” mentioned in the analogy at the beginning of this post. Like most[2] successful people who struggle with mental illness, I have over the years developed a set of coping mechanisms that let me keep going, keep creating and delivering, even when it is difficult to do so – and to make it appear like nothing is wrong. Please realize that there are people around you who are doing the same thing, and who may not be able or willing to talk about it – they’re struggling silently and trying to get by, fighting a battle that one one else can see.

So be kind. Practice being kind by default. It makes a bigger difference than you might think.


[1] I’m thinking back to the time in 2016 when I broke my right hand. I needed surgery to repair the break, and after surgery I was in a cast for two months, followed by months of physical therapy. Now, even though I still do physical therapy exercises every day, I can’t remember what it was like to have my mobility and function so limited for so long. It’s almost like it happened to someone else, because of the passage of time.

[2] I assume, but this assumption is based on personal anecdotes and observations, rather than on real data.