With the recent suicide of Austen Heinz of Cambrian Genomics and a great piece from Business Insider talking about how prevalent depression is among entrepreneurs, the issue of mental health in the tech community is once again making the rounds. While the topic of depression is always popular, I would argue it borders on depression-porn. When push comes to shove, does anybody really care? Or is just lip service?
We’ve all seen the outpouring on social media lamenting the losses and imploring people to ask for help when someone in the community takes their own life, but outside of their family and perhaps a few very close friends, I suspect the vast majority of the outcry serves not as a genuine offer of help but merely as a salve to the conscience of the poster.
Let’s talk about what asking for help most likely looks like. Do you really think your friends are going to call you up and say, “I’m thinking about killing myself and I need help.” I’m not a mental health professional, but I suspect a call for help is far more likely to be disguised as something more innocuous (let me know if I’m wrong about this), such as a text asking, “Hey, are you around to talk?” or a Facebook message saying “You free to hang for a bit?”
Now ask yourself how you responded the last time you received a message like this from a friend. Were you there for them? Did you stop what you were doing and say, “What’s up? Are you OK?” Or did you reply with something like, “I’m slammed” or “working, but might be around this weekend.” Some of you probably didn’t bother replying at all.
The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of us are too caught up in our own self-important bullshit to really pay attention when our friends reach out. Most people aren’t trained to read the signs, so it’s not entirely our fault. But even forgiving that, the bulk of us are inherently selfish with our time and don’t want to deal with other people’s problems.
From the standpoint of the tech/entrepreneur culture, let’s think about the underlying message of all the meritocracy talk. If tech is a pure meritocracy, as so many people like to claim, then failing in this environment must be your fault and your fault alone. You came up lacking. End of story.
For those who are failing, or who have failed, there can hardly be a more discouraging message. Add in the relatively new phenomenon of entrepreneurial hero worship, the constant cycle of celebrating what seems like the overnight success of others, and the ease with which people find they can be cruel on social media, and you have a perfect storm for making people feel bad about themselves.
Even when people aren’t clinically depressed, we as humans crave connection. Ideally we would find these connections with our friends and family first, with people who can then help us find the strength to reach out to professional help if necessary. But instead, people are resorting to blog posts, social media, and sharing a link to the National Suicide Hotline. We may as well be telling people to their face, “Post your problems on Facebook and I’ll leave you a nice comment, but otherwise I don’t have time for you.”
A few years ago, Ben Horowitz wrote about something Al Davis, the former owner of the Oakland Raiders told Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells early in Parcells’ career. Parcells relayed that the most important lesson Davis taught him about football was: “Nobody cares about your injuries or your problems. All they want to know on Monday is if you won.” When Horowitz wrote about this lesson, he was applying it to running a company in the tech industry — and of course, he was right.
Despite all of the personal blog posts, articles, expressions of concern and sympathy on social media, and even despite the numerous suicides and very real problem of depression and mental health in the tech community, the real truth, the hard truth, is that nobody is really listening and nobody cares.