Blog Barista: Greg Antrim | Oct 10, 2018 | Workplace | Brew time: 10 min

DISCLAIMER: I am not a mental health expert and you should seek professional help if you think you’re experiencing mental health issues. This article is based off of my experiences which may differ from your own.

When I graduated from college I had a mountain of debt. I started putting in extra hours until I was working an unhealthy 100 hours a week. Nobody asked me to work that much, I pushed myself. Every task seemed like it needed to be done immediately and surely working that hard would help me pay off my loans faster. Several people warned me that I would eventually burnout, but I didn’t believe them.

I continued working those ridiculous hours for about a year and a half. Slowly, I started taking sick days to recover on sleep and deal with health issues that arose. Soon, two days-off became three, then a week until I finally crashed… hard. After ignoring my mental and physical health for so long I found myself completely unable to get out of bed much less make it to work. It took a complete mental breakdown for me to see that things needed to change.

I am happy to report that things have changed for the better. Since then, I’ve been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder and I’ve taken the necessary steps to manage my condition. I’m working reasonable hours and taking sick days only when I’m actually sick. I’m seeing a therapist regularly and managing medications appropriately. I have a life outside of work and, most importantly, I’m happy.

Now that things are better, I find myself looking back and wondering how I ever let things get that bad. What could I have done differently? I’ve found that there are some underlying patterns that are pretty common specifically to developers and some that apply to an even broader audience. I’ve come to realize that mental health is a very important issue in our industry. One in five adults in America have a mental health condition and developers specifically have a higher than usual burnout rate. With that in mind, I’d like to offer some mental health suggestions based on lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

If Everything is a Crisis, then Nothing is a Crisis

The world of software moves fast. Everybody thinks that their task or bug is priority one. Clients and sometimes even managers tend to underestimate how long a feature or bugfix will take. All of that puts a lot of pressure on a developer. Sometimes we also put pressure on ourselves based on perceived expectations. That perceived “need” to get everything done is what drove me to work those insane hours. Here’s the thing though, none of that pressure actually existed. Not everything needs to be done immediately.

You may be thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, you don’t know my client/project/manager.” That’s fair, but the next time you run into a “crisis” ask yourself this, “What would happen if I was physically unable to deal with this immediately?” If you were sick, or the bug was actually a core problem with your chosen framework, what would happen? Are you going to lose the client? Are you going to be fired? Will the universe implode? The answer is most likely no.

So, before you stay up all night trying to fix a bug or implement a new feature by some perceived deadline, try asking your client or manager if you can come back to the issue the following morning. You’d be surprised how often they say yes. Of course there will be instances where you may have to work extra hours, it comes with the job. But those instances should be few and far between.

Pay Attention to What You Put into Your Body

When you’re working hard on a project, it can be tempting to order out. If you’re working overtime, you are also likely to reach for a caffeinated beverage. You’re probably thinking cooking something takes time and would cause you to lose focus and you need that caffeine to stay awake. I know I did. Those are valid points, but the long-term effects on your mental health will actually make you less productive. Frequent caffeine use can disrupt your sleep cycle and worsen anxiety. Eating unbalanced and processed meals can starve your body of nutrients that are key to your mental health.

When we have the flu, we’re taught from an early age to drink lots of fluids and keep things bland. This same mentality should be applied to depression, anxiety, ADD, and other mental disorders that are harder to treat and have a larger impact on our lives. We need to adjust our diets accordingly. I’m not saying you have to eat kale or start CrossFit, but I would recommend that you try to eat a balanced diet and talk to your doctor about any special dietary needs.

Get Help When You Need It

As developers, we like to do things ourselves. Many of us have side projects and scoff at the idea of hiring someone to do something that we could do ourselves. That mindset is what led most of us to this industry in the first place. Unfortunately, that same mindset can lead to trouble when it comes to mental health. I avoided doctors and therapists for years because I was convinced that I could fix the problems on my own. It took me a while to realize that therapy was the fix.

If life was an app, therapy would be an existing, well-tested framework. Why would I do everything myself when something already exists and does the job better than I ever could? After finding a therapist and working with a psychiatrist to get my medication straightened out I really wish that I would’ve sought help sooner.

Not everyone needs the same level of treatment, but if you are experiencing depression, anxiety or any other issues, you owe it to yourself to at least contact your primary care physician to discuss options. A psychiatrist can be helpful when other medications haven’t worked or have stopped working. Therapy is usually more successful at resolving and managing your issues than medication alone. Therapists will also hold you accountable which can be the difference between knowing your issues and actually fixing them.

Talk About It

There is definitely a stigma when it comes to mental health. It’s gotten better in recent years, but many people still believe that people with mental health issues are unstable, dangerous, or are using their mental health diagnosis to justify an unhealthy lifestyle. In turn, the stigma can become self-inflicted; people with mental health issues are afraid of how others will perceive them. I’ve been on both sides of the table. I used to wonder why people with depression didn’t just fix their issues, after all, I was capable of fixing mine. Do kids really need ADD medication or is it simply easier than parenting?

Then, I experienced those issues first hand and saw that life just isn’t that simple for everyone. That’s why I’ve started talking about it, not just to my family and therapist, but to my coworkers as well.

It felt genuinely cathartic. When I discussed my mental health with co-workers and friends, the self-inflicted stigma disappeared. I was no longer hiding my diagnosis. Therefore, I was no longer ashamed of it. Telling people can also help eliminate the societal stigma. People who know me know that I’m hard working and tend to tackle things myself when possible. Now, they also see that I am a functional member of society and hopefully that mental health disorders happen to all kinds of people.

By being open with people, it has strengthened my support system and made me feel less alone. Depression, especially, can make you feel as if everyone else is functioning on a much higher level than you which can make your depression worsen. I spent those first couple of years out of college thinking that most other employees and friends didn’t have to deal with things like this. When I opened up about my disorder, I started to see that mental health issues are much more widespread. People I’ve worked with or have known for years were dealing with similar issues themselves or have experienced them secondhand. Not only was I no longer feeling alone, but there was proof that these disorders can be managed.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable telling other people at work, you should–at the very least–tell your manager. Mental health issues can affect your work so addressing them may require taking some time off. Being honest about why your performance has fallen or why you are taking so much time off can make the difference between keeping your job and losing it. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects employees with mental illness from discrimination… but only if an employer “knows” of the disability.

At KL&A, telling my managers had a profound impact. When I was finally honest about my mental health issues, they gave me as much time off as I needed. They even helped me find doctors that were accepting new patients. They also worked with me to manage my existing projects so that I could focus on myself. Not having to worry about being unemployed or responding to clients relieved a lot of anxiety. It was crucial to my healing process.

Iterative Development

When things are at their worst, it’s tempting to look for a quick fix or to lose hope because your problems seem insurmountable. There is no quick fix, but I promise that you can effectively manage your mental health. The key is to take small steps.

When you are developing an app, you work on small pieces of functionality that you can accomplish in a short span of time. You should take the same approach when it comes to your mental health. Give yourself small goals that you know you can accomplish. For some that may mean making it through a work week; for others it could be something as small as going for a short walk. As long as your goal is a slight improvement from where you were, you can take pride in your accomplishment.

As you gain momentum, your goals will get bigger and your accomplishments will become greater. Before you know it, you will be on your way to effectively managing your issues.

Continuous Integration

Whether you are following these tips or finding your own path, there will come a day when things seem good. You’ve turned your small steps into real progress and you are fulfilling your societal obligations. You should give yourself credit for your hard work and acknowledge just how far you’ve come. Just remember that mental health is a lifetime obligation.

Just because you are feeling great today doesn’t mean that things can’t fall apart again later. Mental health issues have a way of sneaking up on you. Continue to see your doctor or therapist, and continue to look for the behavior patterns that got you into trouble in the first place. Remember that no one is perfect and therefore everyone has room to improve.

Whether you have been diagnosed with a mental disorder, think your may be suffering, or are trying to understand someone else’s affliction, I hope you have found this article helpful. Whatever your situation is, know that you are not alone in your struggles and that you can overcome them. If you have other tips or feedback be sure to leave a comment and pass this on to your fellow developers.

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