Mental Health in Tech at NationJS 2016

In the summer of 2016, I applied to speak at NationJS, a one-day, single-track JavaScript conference in the greater Washington, DC area. At the time, I was heavily embedded in our Angular 2 project (more on that here) and I was stoked to give a talk about what the experience of living on the bleeding edge had been like. My proposal was accepted, and I cracked my knuckles and got to work on my presentation. It was going to be only the second time I’d ever spoken at a tech conference, the first having been Lone Star PHP this past April. (I previously wrote about how that went here.)

NationJS was scheduled for Friday, September 16th, 2016.

The evening of Wednesday, September 14th, I was at home, getting ready to do one of the final run-throughs of my talk, when I received a phone call from my best friend Yin. Our other best friend, Ni, had unexpectedly taken her own life earlier that day.

It’s hard to describe that experience in a few words. I’m not one for brevity, so if you really want to read more about this experience, I’ve written about it extensively in a personal blog post: (warning: longread)

In the midst of trying to figure out when the funeral would be and whether or not we’d be able to make it out, a question emerged: what in the world do I do about NationJS?

The obvious answer was to back out at the last minute. Conference organizers undoubtedly understand that life happens, and I never for a minute worried that they’d give me flack for not being able to give my talk. At the same time, though, I kept thinking about Ni and everything she stood for, particularly her wholehearted belief in female empowerment and equal representation at tech events.

So, I decided to still speak at the conference. I knew that’s what she would have wanted me to do. But after doing some soul-searching, trying to figure out if I could muster the energy to get up there and be the Angular hype woman that my original talk called for, I realized that I would rather spend 10 minutes talking about mental health in the tech industry than 25 minutes talking about Angular 2. With NationJS organizer Gray Herter’s blessing, I scrapped my entire original presentation and started from scratch, with just one day to prepare.

I’m no expert on this topic. Nearly everything I presented was the result of a crash course I had to give myself in just a single day. But I still felt like it was the right thing to do.

Because it was so impromptu, unrehearsed, raw, and emotional, I asked for the talk not to be recorded and posted online. However, a few people have approached me since then asking if I’d share the resources I highlighted, since there were some helpful links and data points in my presentation, which made me realize that despite the roughness of the talk, the content still has value for others. I figured a blog post is the best way I can still share this information with the community.

What follows is a transcript of the core part of the talk I gave.

Let’s start with a statistic.

1 in 5. That’s the number of adults in the U.S. who are living with a mental illness at any given point in time according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. That number is staggering. But what’s really staggering is how rarely we actually talk about it.

Several advocacy groups are trying to change that. In my crash course, I focused particularly on OSMI (Open Sourcing Mental Illness), a non-profit organization started by Ed Finkler, or funkatron on Twitter. Ed has been trying to raise awareness and start conversations about mental illness and its prevalence in the tech industry. As part of that effort, he’s been one of the first to actively try to collect more data.

In 2014, Ed started a survey. He put it online, and over 1200 people responded. The results were fascinating, and it would take probably a whole talk just to summarize them all, but the most staggering results are the ones you see here:

Respondents were asked to answer the questions:

  • Do you think that discussing a mental health issue with your employer would have negative consequences?
  • Do you think that discussing a physical health issue with your employer would have negative consequences?

On the one hand you might say, “Well, 40 percent of respondents said ‘no’ to the mental health question, so that’s not so bad, right?” But it’s astounding when you compare that with the physical health question. Almost 74% said no to that one.

This clearly indicates a stigma that we all perceive when talking about mental health. And this illustrates it in relation to one of the most critical places where we could be receiving support — in the workplace.

How do we change this? How do we make this go away? I don’t know. But Ed’s theory is that if we all make a commitment to start talking more openly about it, it will have to change. So I’d like you all to think about that — think about what you can do to help reduce this stigma in your workplace.

There are, of course, other ways to help. Perhaps the most important one, and the one that’s most easily overlooked, is to reach out to those who might be troubled. Let them know you’re there. Ask questions, and listen.

I like this quote from Clay Shirky, one of my professors in grad school:

“Our community is unusually welcoming of people disproportionately at risk, but we are also unusually capable of working together without always building close social ties. Github is great for distributing participation, but it is lousy for seeing how everyone is doing.”

So if you want to help, that’s still the best place to start. Reach out. Ask questions. Listen.

But of course, there’s other things you can do.

If you have some time, I’d encourage you all to take Mental Health First Aid, an 8-hour course that teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. It’s one of the best ways to empower yourself to be able to help.

If you’re interested in suicide prevention specifically, check out Hope For The Day and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both host events around the country and are always looking for volunteers.

If you speak at or help organize tech conferences or meet-ups, check out Prompt. They provide resources and assistance for people interested in giving presentations about mental health issues, and encourage conference organizers to bring in a speaker about mental health, to spread awareness especially in the tech industry.

And finally, if you’re short on time or other resources, there’s one other thing you can contribute: your data. Ed and OSMI started up the survey again in 2016, and they’re hoping to get an even bigger and more diverse pool of respondents.

If you’re on the other side of the table and you’re one of the ones in need of help, please, please reach out. Please talk to someone, whether it’s a friend or a relative, a professional counselor, or a support group. You’re not alone.

If you’re a developer struggling with mental health issues, check out OSMI’s forums. They have an active community consisting mostly of developers and designers living with mental illness, as well as allies, who are there to listen.

If you’re not comfortable talking with anybody close to you and are open to counseling, check out the APA’s Counseling Services Locator. They help you find licensed counselors in your area, and you can even filter by sensitivity to specific issues, like ethnicity or sexuality.

If you think you’d like to try a support group, check out Mental Health America’s extensive list to find one in your area.

And if you have or have had thoughts of suicide, please consider bookmarking these websites or putting these numbers in your phone, for the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Crisis Text Line. They are completely free and available 24/7. No matter what happens, someone is always there to listen to you, even when it feels like there’s no hope.

Finally, I leave you with a mantra. When you go about your day, keep repeating this to yourself:

Because it’s true. Take care of yourself. It’s important. You’re important.

Given the impromptu and raw nature of this presentation, I won’t be giving this particular talk at any other conferences in the future. However, I’ve been working on a new talk focused on mental health in the tech workplace, and what the 4 in 5 of us not currently living with mental illness can do to be better allies for those who are. I’ve submitted this proposal to a couple of conferences in early 2017, and I’m looking forward to giving it wherever possible. As fun as it is to speak about exciting new developments in web technology, this issue is a lot more important to me right now.

If you organize a tech event and are interested in my new talk on mental health in the tech workplace, please don’t hesitate to reach out.