Mental Health: Let’s Talk About It

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A designer, writer and speaker based in Belfast, Christopher has founded a number of successful digital startups. As a User Experience (UX) consultant he has … More about Christopher ↬

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Talking about mental health can be awkward and embarrassing, but it really shouldn’t be. Mental health is just an illness, like any other. When we talk about mental health, we do so in hushed terms. We whisper, “Don’t mention it, he or she isn’t ‘all there.’”

I believe this approach — sweeping the problem under the carpet, hiding it from view, or stating, “Let’s not talk about it” — is a problem. Mental health is an issue. It affects our industry, in particular and confronting it head on is important. We need to talk about mental health more openly, and I’m happy to be one of a growing number of people in our industry who are helping to bring this subject out into the open, where it should be.

Mental health is an issue, it shouldn’t be a stigma. If more of us address it, openly, we’ll be able to address some of the problems we face collectively. Our industry is, in many ways, unique in its approach. We share what we learn, pooling our knowledge for the betterment of all. We can apply this approach to greater issues, like health, particularly mental health, and in so doing win the battle of the mind.

Recommended reading: Dealing With Loud And Silent Burnout

A Broken Elbow

Four years ago I broke my elbow. I left my house, on the west coast of Ireland, intending to take a short cycle ride and, barely a few minutes from my front door, managed to throw myself over the handlebars, bounce down a steep hill and break my elbow into what felt like a million pieces.

It was a stupid mistake. I wasn’t wearing a helmet — note to self, that’s never a good idea — and when my body, frail as it was, impacted upon the tarmac and gravel, it suffered immense trauma. Covered in cuts and bruises and bleeding profusely, I tried to pick myself up off the ground, only to discover that my left elbow was, I’m sad to say, almost beyond repair.

Fortunately, my wife, Cara (who — it has to be said — has supported me for an inordinate length of time), happened to be following behind me moments later in a car. She pulled in, gathered me up and took me to the hospital. I’m not a hospital person (I have a real phobia of hospitals), so this wasn’t the greatest day of my life, but I was soon taken care of and dispatched to Belfast, where I was admitted to yet another hospital for an operation to fix my broken elbow.

Unfortunately, all of this coincided with my end-of-year student assessments. I work as a senior lecturer at the Belfast School of Art, and my students, after many years of hard work, were just about to graduate. It was a difficult time, but, thanks to the generous support of my colleagues, I was able to assess my students from the relative comfort of a hospital bed, all thanks to technology. (iPhones are just the ticket when you’re assessing students from afar.)

I returned to work a fortnight later, my arm nestled in a sling. I wore that sling like a badge of pride.

More after jump! Continue reading below ↓

A Broken Mind

Barely two years later, I would find myself in a hospital again. This time, I awoke in a hospital bed feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed. The day before, I had tried to kill myself. I didn’t wear that like a badge of pride. Indeed, outwardly, you wouldn’t have seen any evidence that I had even been in hospital at all.

I suffer from depression.

I find myself all too often overwhelmed by life, questioning the point of it all. I wonder, “Is there an easier way out of this?” The answer, for me at that time, was simple: It’s time to exit.

At that time, with my elbow on the mend, my mind was in a terrible place. I couldn’t see the point of anything; I could only see a way out. Try as I might to rationally address my worries, my mind was cast adrift, and my thoughts were illogical. I had had enough. The rational — or, rather, irrational — solution was to end it all.

I am married and I have two wonderful children. I love my wife, Cara, and my children, Ross and Caitlín, dearly. They mean the world to me. When I look back on that time, I am ashamed of myself. I was ready to leave; I had had enough.

These words are the hardest I’ve written. They are almost impossible to write and to share. How can you state that you were ready to abandon your family? That’s the worst thing anyone could put down on a page.

Anxiety: one of the most prevalent mental health problems in the industry.
Anxiety: one of the most prevalent mental health problems in the industry. (Image credit: Amen Clinics)

When I feel great, I feel great. The world is my oyster, and the world is filled with opportunity. I am filled with hope, and I see the boundless possibilities that life offers. When the fog hits me, however, I cannot think rationally. The world is a black place, somewhere I wish to leave. Rationally, of course, I understand the devastation my choice will incur, but my mind is nowhere near working in what we might call a rational manner.

At that point, there is no badge of pride, only a badge of shame.

Managing A Mind

My last year has been one of change. I’ve regrouped and focused on trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that I cannot be all things to all people. The edges of my day had blurred: 9:00 to 5:00 had become 8:00 to 6:00 and, not long after, 7:00 to 7:00 (and worse). This kind of ever-increasing workload, where the balance between work and life switches, is not uncommon.

I’m sure we’ve all spent evenings or even whole nights just “catching up.” At the risk of stating the obvious, this is extremely unhealthy. We need to wake up, look at ourselves and ask, “Is this what life is really all about?”

Over the last two years, I’ve read a great deal to try to understand how the mind works. That journey has been an interesting one, and I’ve learned a great deal. I’ve found books to be the most helpful. Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety is excellent, as is Viktor Frankl’s incredibly moving Man’s Search for Meaning. Both are well worth owning.

If you can afford to buy just one book, however, get Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox. Peters’ ideas on mind management are invaluable, and if he can help athletes win Olympic gold medals, then he can most certainly help you.

Books are great — as an educator, you’d expect me to say that — but we in this industry share something greater: a strong sense of community. Unlike in many other industries, we share our knowledge freely. Let’s share our knowledge about more than just design and code. Let’s share it about the issues we face in life.

You Are Not Alone

I’m not alone in writing about the issues I’ve faced. A growing number of others have, too, many of whom have been inspired to share their experience as a result of Geek Mental Help Week. Geek Mental Help Week affords us all an opportunity to address these issues head on. We work in an industry that is relentless. Keeping up with change can be a challenge.

A year ago in my journal, fsck, I wrote:

I believe, as an industry, we focus all too often on the headlong excitement of endlessly moving forward. That’s fine, but there’s a flip side. Relentless progress brings with it relentless pressure. It can be difficult to keep up, and the pressure to stay on top of everything can at times prove debilitating.

That remains the case.

Our industry is constantly evolving. It’s developing at an unprecedented rate, and it is intimidating at times. New technologies emerge yearly, monthly, weekly, even daily. Maintaining a knowledge base that is fit for purpose is incredibly time-consuming.

Keeping up is hard, and sometimes the stress of trying to stick with the pack (a pack that always seems to be pulling away from you) is frustrating. The older I get, the harder I find it to keep up with the pace of progress.

No one can do everything; we need to remind ourselves of that from time to time. AngularJS, Ember.js, Node.js; Bower, Grunt, Yeoman — I have no idea how any of these things work, and that’s fine. I have a skill set — I’m essentially a creative director and a mentor — and I’ve slowly come to the realization that my skill set is more than adequate.

I hope, as an industry, we can learn to let go a little. A wonderful world exists inside the machines we work with, but — equally — a wonderful world exists outside of those machines. Look up. Step away from the computer. Go for a walk in the park. That’s where you’ll witness what life is really all about.

We are all struggling. Even those who seem to effortlessly accumulate knowledge are struggling (though they might not admit it). Together, we can confront the challenges we face, as we do so many other challenges. Let’s not forget that.

Smashing Editorial (al, ml)