Saturday, February 2, 2013

Science, technology, startups and suicide

I am writing this blog because of the number of suicides in the startup community. They were all good people and my condolences to their family and friends. This blog is written to address the problem in our community with mental illnesses, stress, and related topics.

I had friends kill themselves before, it was devastating. I am mentally ill myself (how could I not be after what I went through in my life, even seeing my best friends kill themselves and friends and relatives checking on me to make sure I did not follow them), and when I did computer work it was "balls to the wall" as in 100% effort, reach your true potential, full steam ahead, work overtime, take work home, drive yourself to success type of work. The type of work still done by modern startups. Problem is, doing that type of work can be stressful. Learning stress management and anger management can help.

My point is that doing that type of work can lead to unmanaged stress and physical and mental health problems. Not everyone can do that type of work and not suffer in some way. Some suffer by not having a social life, by not having a family, not going out and having fun with friends, etc. This type of work can ruin a relationship or marriage even. This type of work can lead to alcohol and/or drug abuse. This type of work can cause one to become burned out, broken, and suffering from writer's block and become dysfunctional. All of these are problems that must be addressed.

You see when I worked, I neglected my mental health and my emotional health. I do so because management was very demanding, and I didn't have time for breaks. If I got sick and missed one day, I've have a manager call me up and tell me to get back to work, even if I had a bad case of the flu or had a wisdom tooth pulled. Yes I was ordered back to work while infected with a flu virus, and with bleeding gums and my face puffed up like Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor" because it was still num and packed with cotton and bleeding. No excuses, come back to the office and finish these projects or you are fired. I worked as best I could.

I provided value to the company I worked for, I worked with others on a team, who could have taken over my projects, but management didn't want me to miss any days and were very strict. I worked myself so hard I developed schizoaffective disorder and ended up on short-term disability. After that it wasn't the same. People at work would bully and harass me for being mentally ill. As soon as I suffered a panic attack, I was fired. That threw me into a big cycle of major depression and I had suicidal thoughts. Why wasn't I good enough anymore? It became difficult to find work after that. I had the skills, the knowledge, the experience, but no work. What work I did find was only temporary after that, it was only to finish projects nobody else knew how to finish and I had to debug them and rewrite code. I became so sick I ended up on disability and vowed to myself I would one day beat the mental illness and become well enough to work again.

The problem is most companies or startups are not equipped to handle employees with a mental illness. Many employees hide their mental illness least the management think they are of a lesser value because they are mentally ill and demote them, lower their salary, or even fire them. Mental illnesses are a disability protected by the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) but when most companies, startups, schools have a disability policy they think more of people in wheelchairs than the mentally ill in how to accommodate them. In not accommodating a mentally ill person, it makes them feel worthless and drives negative thoughts that could lead to suicide or worse.

There is usually a state program like EAP, Employee Assistance Program that can help an employee with their mental illness, emotional problem, stress, etc. In many cases the employee should be referred there instead of fired or demoted. There should be staff on hand working with HR that are trained in psychology, sociology, and therapy for employees who need help. Many startups ignore this and it is turning into a problem.

Any person can suffer this problem, from the lowest ranked employee up to the CEO, they may even hide the fact that they are mentally ill and act happy and smile, and then you'd never know it until their suicide or maybe bad actions or dysfunction. If one wants to solve this problem, they have to provide treatment for mental illnesses and support and accommodation for the mentally ill.

Part of the problem is the stig of the stigmatization of mental illness being perceived as evil or bad by the news media. Not everyone who is mentally ill ends up as a public shooter, terrorist, sociopath, criminal, etc. The news media won't report that, but will mention every 15 minutes that the person was mentally ill, even before an evaluation or background check is done. It makes us nonviolent mentally ill people look bad, even if we never committed a crime or never been in prison. It may be part of the reason why mentally ill people at startups hide their mental illness, and refuse to seek treatment.

I can tell you this, if you are mentally ill, seek professional help before things get worse. There are medications, therapy, treatments, training you don't need to suffer alone as there are support groups as well. If someone you know is mentally ill, don't shut them off and accuse them of being of weak character, etc, support them, see about getting them professional help so they can return to a normal cycle and continue doing work.

You see this "balls to the wall" mentality most startups have, may be doing some people harm. If one becomes sick, they need to stop and get better and seek professional help, rather than be forced to keep working while sick. In the planning for projects, add in extra days in case employees become sick, have employees work together on projects so one can take over for another in case they get sick. If an employee becomes sick, and your employees are bullying and harassing him/her, tell them to stop it and discipline them. That is not the right way to treat a mentally ill person. You may even be liable if it continues. Have employees take a "mental health break" when you see them stressed out. Offer to walk with them during the break to see how the project is going and any help they might need for it. They need support in times like that.

Remember that with the right support and accommodation for the mentally ill, a lot of bad things can be avoided. Firing a mentally ill person just for being mentally ill only makes them worse, and in some cases can ruin or destroy them. Diversity is always a good thing, and mentally ill people might have a creative mind or a point of view that can help you avoid problems or come up with solutions.

Our legal system needs reform as well, people suspected of crimes cannot be treated the way some of them were treated recently where they were bullied and harassed until they did a suicide. Such treatment should be outlawed and people who do these things need criminal charges filed against them.

I won't mention any names in my blog, but I think everyone should know it is a growing problem that needs to be addressed.

Please let me know how to support and accommodate a mentally ill person in your workplace. I think we need to brainstorm ideas and make it a better workplace for the mentally ill people out there.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and well written post! Quite interesting and nice topic chosen for the post.
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