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Mental Health Issues in Software Development

This is an important issue but I don't think I have really seen it discussed compared
to the other management aspects of software development.

I believe that it will need to be discussed in the future as there are more people who are employed in positions where they are unhappy due to
the poor state of the IT industry as it is no longer a case of "If you don't like it, just leave" for many people now.

An example of this is that the FAQ for the popular discussion group alt.sysadmin.recovery
now contains information on dealing with prescription medication and advice on dealing with depression and suicide. This is from a group that usually shies away from discussion of anything that could help them in their workplace.

The all too familiar situation of an employee coming back to work heavily armed almost seems like a cliché, but it is important to know that people don't just 'snap' - it is often a result of pressures built up over months or years.

Other problems with employees may not have as severe consequences as the above scenario, but may lead to other situations such as resulting in sexual harassment claims due to the person not being able to understand the difference between someone just showing normal courtesy and being interested in a relationship. This can be compounded by the other people in their workplace who seem to continually put them down without knowing that they have a serious condition.

Employees also like to joke about their boss being 'mad' without knowing the true situation.
I have worked on one software project where the leader of the team was undergoing treatment for clinical depression and didn't tell any of the project members until after the software had been completed - this led to some problems with the team members as they thought the leader wasn't supporting them as he should have been and only wanted to criticise (it was a symptom of his condition.)

If you have anything to add to this I would really like to hear your opinions on this issue.


Friday, February 7, 2003

Er, funny you mentioned this today.

As background: I'm a consultant; I work offsite out of my home office, doing a lot of "heavy lifting" type custom software development. Right now in this part of the country the weather has been sh*tty for the last 3 months, so I don't do much outside. My wife works three days a week during the day for 12 hour shifts, so I literally can go for a week without human contact other than my wife or perhaps a run to the store, spending perhaps 80% of my waking hours in the house, much of that by myself.

Anyway - I had an issue with my checking account so I spoke with the business banking rep at the branch bank today after I made some deposits. I was stunned how *unnatural* it felt to me to converse with a non technical person, and how *odd* it felt to make the acquaintance of a new person. Even forming sentences in real time (not typing in a online forum) was somewhat challenging...

This, I realized, is absolutely NOT healthy! And I don't want to live this way.

I got into similar introversion patterns years ago when I worked as an FTE in someone else's office, but it never felt this strange to simply get out and speak to someone.
The  work in this field can be mentally stimulating and quite challenging, but the work itself is NOT social and, often, there is simply no way to integrate socialbility with the patterns of solo effort that one needs to focus properly on the work.

It's kind of unfair, too. SOMEONE needs to do this crap. But we techies become fringe members of society and outsiders through the act of doing the work itself. The work itself, as I have experienced both in periods of heavy work and no technical work, actually seems to "rewire" your brain against being readily socialble. I have yet to meet anyone who does 'intense' stuff in this field who is fully social in the conventional sense that most non tech people consider is normal. Most techies I've worked around that have been heavyweights have been chock full of strange little ticks and mannerisms.
What I think I need to do in my own case for the simple sake of mental health is to perhaps join and participate in some service clubs (Lion's, Rotary, etc, whomever will have me :-) ) and try to move into a less mentally 'intense' niche...

Bored Bystander
Friday, February 7, 2003

Mental Health in Software Development?

Sounds like a great idea.  Where do I get some?

Nat Ersoz
Friday, February 7, 2003

I'm a regular JoS poster, but prefer to remain anonymous on this thread.

I suffer from clinical depression and have for 13 years.  I am what is known as "refractory", or not responsive to medication.  My job of four years requires me to be the de-facto leader of a small team of developers.  About 50% of my job is human interaction.

Strangely, this is the easier half for me to manage.  On the technical end, I'm unmotivated and have extreme difficulty concentrating for more than a few minutes at a time.

There are a couple issues that I'm curious about:

- Does programming attract people who "feel less" than others and are drawn to "cold" occupations such as engineering?  Or is it the other way around?  Do people who "feel things deeply" become programmers to evade meaningful interaction?  Does anyone have a feel for the split?

- Has any research been done on what types of depression (and there are several discrete types) are commonly associated with those in technical fields?

Friday, February 7, 2003

Bored, I think it's normal for human interaction skills to change if someone's intensively involved in, say, lone software development, or lone physics research, or whatever. Hence the cliche of the nutty professor.

Like anything, though, we humans adapt to it. I've been in the situation you describe, and then been placed in senior management roles that required a lot of talking and meeting and, although it did indeed seem noticeably different, I adapted to it.

Not bored
Friday, February 7, 2003

I have worked out of a home office for the last 12 years, and slowly morphed into the Jack Nicholson character in "The Shining".  Not in a violent sort of way, but just as a prisoner of the isolation inherent in working that way.  I should also mention that I live in the midwest USA at 42N+ and one year I counted the sunny days between November and May and got an average of less than 2 per month.  As we say in the technical trades, the whole arrangement  Sucks Ass.

In the fall of 2002 I decided to go back to school to finally finish my undegraduate degree that I originally started in 1976 (I am 44 - bet you never booted a PDP-8!) and begin a Masters in CPS.  This has been a HUGE breath of fresh air, and I both massively enjoy the interaction in the academic environment (even though _some_ of the profs truly don't know shit) and at the same time arrive back at the home office fired up and ready to code some real Whoop Ass.

You get the picture .... do the bidness but get out and about with whatever peers you can find, when you can find them.  If nothing else, you'll realize that you're not so dumb as your late night flop-sweat sessions made you think.

Mitch & Murray (from downtown)
Friday, February 7, 2003

There is something insane about software development: it is virtual, it's all bits flipping on and off inside a computer and reality gets hidden in the process.

For example even typing this message has something unreal to it: I'm communicating with virtual people, with no faces, no body, just a message on the screen.  Developing software is a lot worse: after let's say 30 man years of work we end up with a CD in box??? All that work fits on CD .... ??? Unreal ...

Maybe some of the posts on JoS are computer generated, maybe we're part of Turing test, maybe this is the Mattrix typing ;-) .

This virtuality is alienating, it is not healthy ... it diminishes our humanity.


Saturday, February 8, 2003

I had been thinking about this very subject. I have always prefered the kind of work or hobbies that require a lot of time alone. There is a mental state called "flow" that people get into when concentrating intensely on a challenging and/or creative project. Since I love to be in that state I have gravitated towards solitary work and when I discovered programming it seemed like the perfect job for me.
But of course this kind of work is only satisfying for some aspects of your personality. My sociable extroverted side can really suffer.
As someone mentioned, the days when it was easy to leave a job if you weren't happy are over. We have no choice but to fit in and get along with everyone at the office we happen to work in now, and that can be a depressing thought.
In my previous careers there was usually a social aspect, and now there is much less. I'm the only programmer in my department who looks forward to meetings, and would like to have more, because at least it's a chance to talk instead of type.
There are days when I spend a lot of time here because at least it's a chance to interact with human beings.

Saturday, February 8, 2003

This one cuts a little to close to home. 

A little work background:
Independent consultant for 3 years now, mostly back-end, server-side stuff (exciting I know).  I used to have a home office, but now rent office space.  Previously, I was a dot-commer and prior to that, small business consulting/custom software.

A little personality background:
Out going, extroverted, funny and love to be around people.  I have always played competitive sports.  I am generally well received in new social settings and have never had a problem interacting with people.  I am not apt to shy away from attention.

Where things took a turn:
My latest project has been a two year hell.  The people are nice, the project is interesting but the push to get the thing to market was unbearable.  80-100 hour weeks for months on end.  They paid me a lot of money.  The kind of cash you might consider selling your first born for.

How I knew I was in trouble:
Bored Bystander describes the following moment 'going out into the world':

<I was stunned how *unnatural* it felt to me to converse with a non technical person, and how *odd* it felt to make the acquaintance of a new person. Even forming sentences in real time was somewhat challenging ...>

This captures my experience almost exactly.  I went from being a relatively likeable outgoing guy, to a bumbling, creepy, idiot in less than a year!

How I turned it around:
1.  Capped things at 50 hours a week, no exceptions.  I told my boss, he didn't have any problems.
2.  Got back into sports, in a big way.
3.  Made plans to see friends.  Weekends away, that sort of thing.  The kind of plans that can't be broken.
4.  Started going to the gym.  Although I like sports, I hate the gym.  Or so I thought.  Its my new social club.
5.  Joined the Chamber of Commerce.
6.  Got an office.  Working from home sucked the life out of me.  I found a cheap space, but its mine.  I get up and drive to work like everyone else now.  Of all of the things I have  done, this has had the most positive impact.

I always considered myself strong mentally, not susceptible to this type of thing.  I got my life back and it will always stay that way.  I have realized how fragile that the state of 'happiness' can be.

Hit A Nerve
Saturday, February 8, 2003

Sort of related:

I dunno after how long, but the other day I picked up a pencil to give an exam and man did it feel strange... it felt like I was being re-acquainted with someone I knew very well a long time eerie kind of feeling

Scared the shit out of me..

Prakash S
Saturday, February 8, 2003


Same thing happened to me but it wasn't a pencil I picked up! <g>

And for the record, I've become a total loon too.

Saturday, February 8, 2003

I got a day job over a year ago for a financial software group. I find I get more work done, even in cube hell, than I did at home. There were either too many distractions at home with children or there weren’t enough distractions.

This past week though, I was doing a special on the side project for a friend and I was stuck and started talking to my wife ((who asks me “how do you do this again?” every time she wants to “erase this thing” [format a floppy] – she keeps her stuff on a floppy even though I’ve tried to explain that a CD-R is better)). She literally helped me finish writing an application. Granted she didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, but there was genius in the social interaction. I had a billion ideas while I was talking to her and we worked together for hours.  A couple days later I asked my son to help me out and he helped me a great deal. He’s pretty PC savvy (he could work at my office and run rings around most of the people there- he’s a power user on the verge of becoming a power programmer at a pre-teen age). [we way underestimate the mental and creative power of children and of course *over* estimate the power of our own children]

For some of us, I think the value of programming in teams (isn’t that extreme programming – working in pairs) is related to our sanity. I know that when the conditions are right, I can do good work by myself. But I’ve also found that the social interaction with other people shoots sparks off in my brain. Perhaps that’s the genius of extreme programming.

I go to church every week and get a lot of social interaction with people I would never meet otherwise – seventy and eighty year olds can provide conversations that would blow your mind– as well as young professionals like myself.

So, I have narrowly avoided going into that strange world that hacker-hermits live in  by having a family with several children, a day job and a social group (church).

Saturday, February 8, 2003

As a consultant who spends 90% of my time working alone at home, I empathize with much of what's been said.  Sad to say, but I don't think I could do it (sanely) without having at least the companionship of my dog.

Some questions posed in this thread have suggested that it is not something peculiar to software development that creates anti-social behavior, but rather something about people (mostly men) with anti-social behavior that draws them to software development.  There was a really interesting article about that in the Atlantic Monthly a year or so ago, which I couldn't find.  But I did find another article on the web that was on the same topic.

Basically, there is a theory running around now that autism is a condition that (1) is a disease that affects males far, far more often than females, and (2) is a disease that has a very wide spectrum of severity, so that it's not just possible to say "John is autistic", and "Sam isn't autistic", but rather that it's more accurate to say that a large percentage of males are autistic, with some displaying very mild symptoms so that they're not normally classified as autistic, while others with more obvious symptions are classified as having the disease.

One curious note is that the very high percentage of children being born in Silicon Valley who have profound autistic symptoms is part of what has prompted recent research.

You can read one of the introductory articles here:§ion=current&issue=2002-11-23&id=2520

This paragraph offers a taste of it:

"Autism, in its many guises, is an overwhelmingly male affliction, characterised by an abnormality in social development and communication skills and, usually, an obsessional interest in all sorts of weird, mechanistic stuff, from an early age (usually between three and five years). The current thesis among those studying autism holds that the condition is simply an extreme example of male behaviour. "

The theory offers an explanation of why men seem to be more interested and better at technical jobs than women:  many of the men who are good at technical things have mild degrees of autism.  This autism, which goes hand-in-hand with technical prowess, often isn't noticed because the men do not have huge social problems.  But they nevertheless are identifiable as being somewhat quirky in social matters. 

I don't feel qualified to judge whether the theory is a good one or not.  But it does provide an interesting explanation for much of what can be seen by anybody.  The Atlantic Monthly article I read back in late 2001 was quite a bit more detailed, and would be worth digging up if anyone's interested.  And I guess the book by Simon Baron-Cohen would be the place to get it straight from the horse's mouth.

Herbert Sitz
Sunday, February 9, 2003

I was wondering how much stress is caused by boredom.

So often now work is unchallenging and I have come to the realisation that software development is only interesting to me about 10% of the time.

This morning I sat down at my PC, booted it up, logged it on, then just glazed my eyes over and did nothing for about ten minutes.

This is really unusual for me as I'm a pretty active outgoing sort of guy.

Also just working with some of the screw ups you can meet in the IT game (people like you) can suck the juices out of you.

Most of us have overrated our talents, thinking that we are as smart as you needed to be back when the industry was in its infancy.

Like all growing industries, eventually it becomes mature, like it is now.

It was ok while it was growing, even fun, but now it's a mature industry with too many drones in it, and I'm starting to turn into one.

Soon, I'll be on the next wave.

Sunday, February 9, 2003


I've read some similar stuff to yourself, and it worries me.  The big worry is that the labelling as 'mildly autistic' brings those labeled into the medical model.  Once you have been labeled as being not 'normal' within the medical model then people try to cure you.

Parents, like myself, who are worried about their children's social development is where the real danger lies.  Johny hasn't got lots of friends and likes his own company.  Doctor, give him prozac!

While being obese is a real thread to well being, people cover a range of sizes.  Yet now only one size is acceptable - too thin.  Parents pile pressure on their children to keep their wheight down.  The children pile the same pressure on each other.

Now do we have the same type of pressure put on our children because they don't have a super attractive personality like those nice people on TV?

Ged Byrne
Monday, February 10, 2003

"Now do we have the same type of pressure put on our children because they don't have a super attractive personality like those nice people on TV?"

Like John Leslie you mean? Angus Deaton?

Monday, February 10, 2003


It was only a couple of generations ago that parents wanted their sons to be engineers.

Will the genius of the next Turing or Brunell or Von Nuemann or Newton or Franklin be lost in a Ritalin haze before they read puberty?

Even worse than when the genius of Turing was ruined by attempts to cure his 'sexual deviency.'

Ged Byrne
Monday, February 10, 2003

Ged --

You said, "Once you have been labeled as being not 'normal' within the medical model then people try to cure you."

I could see this new theory of autism having exactly the opposite sort of effect:

Under this new theory, autism isn't really even a disease, it's just a part of the makeup of male psychology.  Severely autistic men aren't diseased, they're just on the extreme end of the spectrum of this phenomenon of male psychology. 

And there's certainly no disease to cure with engineeers, mathematicians, programmers, whose behavior has elements of autistic "symptoms", theirs is just a normal variation in the male psyche.  Sure, it has the result that they are less skilled in social situations than most other people, but they have compensatory gifts in other ways.

I guess this approach would be one someone like the neurologist Oliver Sacks ("The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat", "Awakenings") would take.

One question: Is there even any medication that's used to treat severe autism now?  (I realize severely autistic kids may receive Ritalin or other drugs like that, but are those drugs being used to treat autism or some other problem the kid is having?)

In any case, I recognize the concern you have.  But it could be made to cut the other way, too.  It all depends on how people react to the information.  Myself, I don't see anything at all to be treated for people who could be classified as "mildly autistic" under the new theory.  (Remember, depending on you definition of mild this could category could include almost all men.)  Just more variation between people, increased diversity.

Herbert Sitz
Monday, February 10, 2003

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that many (most?)  engineers are INTJ or ISTJ.  Which simply means we tend to be "thinkers" rather than "feelers".  And there's nothing wrong with that.  Where I have had trouble in the past is that being thinking-oriented I tended to pay less attention to my emotional state and health.  I now devote at least a little time each day to caring for myself emotionally.

I also suspect -- but don't have evidence -- that some of the traits that make us good software developers result in us being unhappy to one degree or another.  Again, using myself as a case study, I am very detail-oriented.  That means I won't forget to make a field private instead of public.  It also means I can nitpick a beautiful sunset to death.  "Oh that's nice, but look, that tree's in the way a little, and those buildings are rather ugly...".  So now, I look for things to be happy about or grateful for, instead of being disappointed that they aren't "perfect".

Finally, I know the isolation of my job gets to me sometimes (though it's not as bad as some who've posted).  I could do with a bit more "people time", it helps me recharge.


Monday, February 10, 2003

I myself was once depressed for, well, a very long time. Thing is, I didn't know I was depressed until after I no longer was and heard about other people talk about their depression.

To a huge degree the arrival of my not-depressed status is strongly correlated with certain occurances of social interaction. I was rather anti-social for a long time, until I found people I actually like chatting with over the internet (a message board, actually - a game one). Really that's when I was no longer depressed anymore. The key was it was personal, yet anonymous, and rather deep and meaningful and fun.

Years later I find both my need for social interaction, and the pleasure I get either from it or as it positively effects my after interaction experiences, has increased.

I found this when I started taking 2 classes, 2 days a week from college (adds up to like 6 hours a week). It's not even so much that I enjoy much of the interaction itself - I just feel better afterwards. I feel happier for just having interacted, even at times when I'm not interacting.

I also feel myself getting alot better at it and more comfortable with it. My ability to debate and communicate online is begining to bleed into real life, slowly but surely.

It also does wonders for a person's hygiene :D

'cause frankly, there isn't too much reason to smell and look good if you aren't around people regularly whom's reactions to you you wish to control in certain ways.

And it's all combining together to make me more rationally confident IRL. Hell, in the business role I'm considering now I'll likely end up before long having personal meetings with _politicians_ for Joel's sakes! Negotiating tens of thousands of dollars in deals a pop with people I'd never even previously met! ...course, I have some, oh, 2000+ more pages of material to read and digest and a few months of active in-person out-in-the-field research to do, and it still gives me that "eerrrr...I have to do what?" feeling, but still. That's some serious progress.

[After rereading this before posting, I think I should add: It's Real Estate. That didn't sound so good the way I said it, did it?]

Hell, before that I was considering something that would damn near make me an in-the-flesh salesman (for my own business, of course)...thinking about it, it gives me the willies.

Errr...anyhow, this I reccommend to you: One good way to get back into the social world and do something directly productive and useful too is to take a local college course or two.

Oh, but you probably wouldn't want it to be a higher-level technical field. I've had excellant results so far in studying Business - Economics I loved but the only social interaction was being the only one who asked questions and spoke to the professor. Damn, people really tend not to like Economics, as evidenced by how much the vast majority of people are stunningly ignorant of it - I can't quite understand why, either.

Yet strangely in my 2 Accounting courses I've gotten a surprisingly large amount of social interaction, with students AND teachers (in the first one the teacher took a team approach - I don't think he did so well teaching the class, but my god it was so much fun talking with people and even in the course itself - I was so lucky to have gotten the opportunity).

English is also reasonably good, I feel, as it forces both written interaction with people and dealing with people in person IRL.

If you really want to jump into it, though I haven't taken one yet, perhaps try one of the Communication classes, like Interpersonal Communication or Public Speaking.

Sure you probably have to pay a good sum for the priviledge, but it can be a damn good buy!

I am truly amazed what even a little non-trivial social interaction (especially Co-operation - most important, I think) can do for oneself.

You might not like it at first, but you may find that soon you are happier - and even smarter and more productive - for it.

Picking up good books on psychology, influence, and persuasion is also HIGHLY advisable - I know I did, and will continue to do so.

...or even if you don't like any of this crap, somewhat meaningful social interaction is almost always good medicine, even if you don't like it.

Brian Hall
Monday, February 10, 2003

*sigh* It's not the case that treating a problem with medication will turn you into a clockwork orange or anything.  Generally the larger psychological community aims to bring people to a more functional state, not to medicate people until they all fit some fixed model of the human brain.

They are always talking about what would happen if the next Einstein had ADD or Autism or something like that.  What about the brilliant kid who could have been the next Einstein if he had been given some psychotherapy and mild medication to allow him to harnes his intelligence and actually finish something? 

Beating a dead horse again.  Oh well..

Monday, February 10, 2003


I appreciate the benefits of phschological treatment delivered in a sensible manner.

However, all of my medical experience is with Britains National Health Server, and much of it is bad.  I know that the proper care is not taken when prescribing drugs, the doctors just don't have the resources to take true care.  Any drug is dangerous when it isn't backed up by the right type of care and attention.

My ritalin haze comment was a little glib.  Sorry, I get emotional about these things.  What worries me is that we become less and less tolerant of the diversity in our children and that the an over-stretched health service support parents in their irrational demands just because their little boy doesn't like football.

I just hope that Herbert is right.

Ged Byrne
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The current situation regarding mental health and drugs is that our society has only recently become aware that lots of people have psychological problems who are not insane. In other words, these problems are not extreme but still cause suffering to the person and their family. Psychotherapy has become more widespread and more people, including children, are being diagnosed.
At the same time the drug companies have discovered drugs that do help certain individuals with certain mental disorders, such as depression.
Naturally, diagnosing these disorders and prescribing drugs has gone wild. The drug companies can make a fortune and therapists feel that they can help people to feel better and function normally. There is some potential benefit for everyone.
On the other hand, there is potential harm for everyone. Drugs should not be used to dull all the pains of life, because most of those pains are meaningful and informative. And every drug has long-term harmful consequences and for the most part no one knows what the long-term effects of any of these new drugs are, especially on children whose brains are developing.
People are different, not all are cheerful extroverts. Not all kids are placid and obedient. Don't make your kids take drugs so they will conform to your society's ideal.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

"They are always talking about what would happen if the next Einstein had ADD or Autism or something like that."

Actually, there are many psychologists and psychiatrists who believe that Einstein did have autism or its milder cousin, Asperger's syndrome and would have likely been officially diagnosed with it if he grew up in today's age.

T. Norman
Tuesday, February 11, 2003

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