Mental health in web development

HTML code with mental health class names

Back in November (21–22) 2013 I travelled to Dublin to TerminalFour‘s annual global user conference t44u at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. TerminalFour develop the web content management system that we use here at St Andrews: Site Manager, often simply referred to as T4.

This was the third or fourth event that I’d attended and was by far the most enjoyable for me, not least because we were located in a rugby stadium rather than a brewery. The last few conferences had been hosted at the Guinness storehouse… and I don’t drink alcohol (largely thanks to an inherited kidney disease). I was, however, brought up in the Scottish Borders where we do play rugby. A lot.

It was also, as promised, the most hands-on conference to date. One of the main focuses of the event was about unleashing Site Manager’s potential. You can view the mind maps I created, on Flickr (Thursday and Friday). There were sessions about content strategy; existing, new and future Site Manager features; platform as a service; mobile web and responsive web design; web search; and more than one presentation about novel ways of using Site Manager to edit and manage content, and quickly create new sites.

Christopher Murphy

The session that touched me the most, however, was the keynote talk by Christopher Murphy (@fehler on Twitter), an academic, writer and designer based in Belfast; he is one half of the Web Standardistas and now a volunteer with Prompt, an organisation with a remit of starting conversations about mental health in the technology industry.

His talk had me in tears, at one point, to be honest.

Christopher shared with us, at times with a lump in his throat and a pause or two to re-gather his composure, that on 21 May 2013—only six months before—he had found himself waking up in hospital. The day before Christopher had attempted to kill himself.

If I remember correctly, his wife had returned home, found him, called an ambulance and here he was now, lying in a hospital bed, ‘feeling exhausted, disorientated and ashamed’.

Over the next half an hour Christopher shared with us something of what had brought him to this the lowest point in his life: an unsustainable schedule of demands and responsibilities of writing and talking, teaching and supervising, designing and creating. He felt like life was out of control, and at his lowest ebb he saw only one way out which very nearly killed him.

Filled with remorse, Christopher resolved to do something about it. He began looking into what had led him to this point, he began to explore and understand the mechanics of the mind. Later he also decided to share some of what he had learned with the tech and web communities he was a part of; which is what brought him to be standing before us, laying himself bare and sharing something immensely personal with us.

(You can read Christopher Murphy’s very moving article on 24 ways: Managing a mind.)

Pace of change

Christopher touched on the “relentless pace of change” that we experience in the web development industry. Not that long ago it was enough to have a firm grasp of HTML and CSS, and a smattering of JavaScript and PHP to get you into the industry. But these days you can’t go two months without a new browser version being released, the specifications for HTML5 and CSS3 seem to be in continuous flux (did anyone else implement the <hgroup> tag only then to discover just months later that it had already been deprecated from HTML5?), then there is now Sass, and Less, and Stylus to help us with CSS production, we have Node and NPM, Grunt and Yeoman. All these things to supposedly make our lives easier, and yet somehow at the same time making things increasingly complex at best and unnecessarily anxious at worst. And what about PHP libraries, JavaScript frameworks, text editors, IDEs, new graphics formats like WebP? Where does it stop?

I have a constant gnawing feeling that I’m always behind with my skills. But where do you start? And as <hgroup> has proved, will what you learn already be out of date within the year?

Status anxiety and imposter syndrome

Christopher spent much of his talk speaking about two pressures in particular: status anxiety and imposter syndrome.

Status anxiety is “an anxiety about what others think of us; about whether we’re judged a success or a failure, a winner or a loser.” Imposter syndrome, he said, is far more widespread than you’d imagine. It is defined as “a fear that one is not as smart or capable as others think”. It’s a fear that one day you will be ‘found out’ by them, even though you don’t exactly know who ‘they’ are, or what exactly they will find out.

To be honest, I feel a combination of both these fears almost every time I have to visit the systems team. “They must think that I’m an idiot for not knowing this,” I find myself saying inside my head. But why?! Server configuration and administration aren’t my specialities or responsibilities. I’m going to ask for their expertise and advice to help me complete a particular task. But I still beat myself up a bit about it if I’m not careful.

Mental Ill-health

Why does mental ill-health still carry such a stigma? Clearly there is an element of fear involved, and labels such as ‘psycho’, ‘nutter’, and ‘loony’ don’t help, but not every case of mental ill-health is as extreme as psychosis, schizophrenia, or personality disorder. Mental ill-health symptoms can include:

  • Feeling sad or down.
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  • Excessive worries.
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities.
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stresses.
  • Significant tiredness.
  • Sleeping problems.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced some of these symptoms at least once in their life. We don’t give people grief for catching a cold or a tummy bug, or if they break their leg. We don’t blame them in the same way that I’ve heard people with mental ill-health blamed: “Well, it must be his own fault for catching that common cold! He should have prevented it!”

What nonsense! That doesn’t help anyone.

Depression

After my dad died in 1998 I got really depressed. Everyone could see it, apart from me. My GP wanted to put me on anti-depressants; I couldn’t see why, so I refused. But my days were bleak. I couldn’t see a point in anything.

“Why should I do this or that… I’m going to die in the end, so what’s the point?” That was the conversation in my head most of the time.

It was actually getting involved in web development that helped pull me slowly out of that quagmire. It offered me a way to express myself and to be creative. It was something that didn’t require me to work with other people if I didn’t want to, and to collaborate with others when I did. For me it worked. It was a lifeline, and after seven years I moved into web development full-time.

Parenthood

My most recent and sustained experience of what must surely fall under the umbrella of mental ill-health has been parenthood. I have twin boys (5) and a singleton (3). It is getting easier now; and if not easier then it is definitely getting different.

I’ve spent much of the last 4–5 years in a state of constant exhaustion and sleep deprivation. At times I’ve found it difficult to concentrate. There have been days when it has felt as though my thoughts were literally falling out of my head. I had to write everything down and schedule every piece of work in my Outlook calendar so that I could remember—even mid-task—what I was supposed to be working on.

I had a constant headache for four months a few years ago. I thought there was something wrong with me! Well, there was: I wasn’t getting enough sleep. Some nights my boys were awake every 15 minutes. And I only know that because we kept notebooks to record everything that happened, who had been fed/changed/medicated and by whom, otherwise we couldn’t remember from hour to hour.

I’ve not heard many people referring to those first few years of parenthood as a period of mental ill-health, but it definitely is. I experienced every one of those symptoms in the list above. I do feel like a stronger person for having gotten through it, but damn! that was hard, really hard.

And now…?

I was really pleased that Christopher Murphy talked about this whole topic at T44U. I’m glad there are organisations like Prompt and discussion boards like Devpressed that raise these issues within the industry and offer support.

I don’t have an answer, but I do know that stigma and blame don’t help. As a web industry we need to keep talking about this more openly. We need to let people know that it’s okay to talk about it.

People, it’s okay to talk about it!

Just like that.

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