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Preventing and Understanding Suicide in the Tech Industry

Dan Russ September 10, 2016

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It's no secret that Silicon Valley and the tech startup scene in general have a large -- and growing -- problem with suicide and mental illness. In the last few years, a great deal of attention has been given to the suicides and mental illnesses of prominent figures, mostly at the executive and founder levels of companies.

It's almost painfully easy to understand why startup founders struggle with mental illness. The pressure of taking an idea and transforming it into a successful company, of knowing that the livelihoods of workers depends on your guidance, and the brutal knowledge that nine out of ten startups ultimately fail is an incredible burden, and has led to too many losses. And these are just the usual burdens of running a company, and set aside the very real toll that months of focused, negative press, lawsuits, and the high cost of failure.

But what about the people that work in tech, but didn't start their own company? For every founder, there are dozens of engineers, designers, managers, and support staff. Missing deadlines and going over budget on doesn’t just affect the head of a company, and the extra hours put in, all of the late nights and early mornings required to hit that next milestone impact everyone at a company.

Suicide and mental illness are big problems for everyone in the tech industry, but there are a number of things anyone working in tech can do to recognize warning signs and risk factors, and ultimately help coworkers in need.

The reality of working in technology, and in particular in a startup, is that it can be difficult. Some people thrive under that kind of pressure, or may enjoy a particularly fast-paced environment some of the time, but many are not at their best under the types of stress and working conditions for which tech startups are notorious.

What are some signs that a coworker might be thinking about suicide?

Listen to the comments your coworkers make, about work and their personal lives, and pay close attention to their saying things like:

  • Being a burden to others. People sometimes feel this way when they feel they have an inadequate skill set compared to other people in the same role. Feeling as though you can't do your job very well -- and that you need other people to spend their time helping you -- can make a person feel like others would be better off without them. Sadly, imposter syndrome can confound some of the consequences of this sentiment, causing exceptionally talented people to feel they are not good at their jobs. Countering these feelings of inadequacy are harder if they’re not based in objective truth about performance, or if job performance is evaluated on measures requiring self-assessment.
  • Feeling trapped. Coworkers can often feel as though they are trapped in their job for a number of reasons, like high student loan payments or family obligations, and feel pressure to remain in a position that they may otherwise have the freedom to consider leaving.
  • Having no reason to live. This is a particularly concerning statement, and likely a warning sign for self-harm. Humans are hardwired to seek survival and find purpose in life, and purpose of mission is often what motivates people to enter the tech community initially. Companies are founded to impact people and enact change, so losing -- or not having -- a sense of purpose can be incredibly difficult for some people.
  • Wanting to hurt or kill themselves. Often, people with suicidal tendencies will talk about hurting themselves in a joking way to mask the reality of what they are saying. Even as a joke, this sentiment needs to be taken as a request for help.,

Pay attention to what your coworkers do, in particular for things like:

  • Increased use, or abuse, of alcohol and drugs. If you notice that a coworker is spending more time in bars, or worse, drinking at home alone, it can often be a sign that they've started to mentally struggle.
  • Acting recklessly. When people start taking large risks with little potential payoff, particularly if they aren't generally an impulsive person, it can be a sign that the consequences -- and their lives -- do not matter to them.
  • Withdrawing from activities. If a team member that used to participate in social events stop attending, it could be a sign that they are in need of help.
  • Isolating from family and friends. One of the worst things about depression is that it causes people to withdraw from their lives, and fall deeper into themselves, particularly at times when they are most in need of contact from people close to them.

Look out for some of the risk factors that can lead a worker to become suicidal.

There isn't a single cause or single risk factor for why people begin to think about hurting themselves, and the reality is that it is often a combination of mental illness, environmental, social, and professional factors that lead people into thinking about suicide. Some of the risk factors of suicide include:

  • Mental health conditions. Many people struggle with lifelong mental illness, and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline antisocial disorder, and anxiety disorders are much more prone to suicide than those people without mental illness.
  • Substance abuse problems. Coworkers that drink too much or become addicted to other substances are often at higher risk for suicide than those that do not.
  • Prolonged stress factors like harassment, bullying, relationship problems, and unemployment.
  • Access to lethal means like firearms and drugs. Almost half of all suicides occur with a firearm.
  • Exposure to another person's suicide, or graphic/sensationalized accounts of suicide.

What can I do if I think a co worker is thinking about hurting themselves?

The most important thing that you can do is to listen to them, and show empathy. It's very important that people that may be on the brink are actively listened to, and not just told to toughen up or deal with it. If someone breaks their wrist, we send them a doctor and give them time to heal, and we must do the same with mental illness.

You can also help them a great deal by being aware of the various resources that are in place to help:

Crisis hotlines:

  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and has skilled, trained counselors on hand to help. This hotline is open to both people that are struggling themselves, and for their friends who want to know what they can and should do.
  • The Crisis Text Line has a similar goal to the Suicide Prevention Hotline, and is a choice for people that would rather talk in text than in voice.
  • I'm Alive is an online crisis network and community, filled with both mental health professionals and volunteers to help people in times of need.

Financial and prescription aid:

Policy:

  • Guidelines for Mental Illness in the Workplace, and Mental Health Guidelines for Employees, a pair of excellent resources from Open Sourcing Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fostering understanding and empathy for mental illness in the tech workplace. While not helpful during moments of crisis, these resources are excellent ways to understand your rights in the workplace, and as a tool for improving workplace mental health policy.

Further learning:

Written by Dan Russ

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