A Double Edged Sword

Editor’s note: This article has been submitted anonymously to me as the editor of geekmentalhelp.com — the website of the #geekmentalhelp campaign. Not everyone is in a position to “come out” as a sufferer of mental health problems, but they are still out there; members of our community.


This week is Geek Mental Help Week. I admit to having mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I salute the effort. We need more awareness of these very disabling conditions. On the other hand, these kind of awareness campaigns hit me hard and I end up just wanting to crawl under a rock until they are over.

I am a geek. Nowhere as geeky as some, but certainly geeky enough to wear that hat with pride.

I also have been dealing with chronic (often severe) depression for the last 30 or so years. This is not something I discuss in public as there is still much stigma attached to it. There are very real risks to me and my loved ones if the fact I deal with depression, and its extent, became known. This is why I asked this post be anonymous.

And in part it is why awareness campaigns such as the Geek Mental Help Week are so important. The public needs to be educated about the existence and the reality of mental illnesses, including in the IT world. And our geeky brothers and sisters who battle mental illness need to know they aren’t alone. Mental illness exists. 4.6% of adult Americans experienced a serious mental illness in 2012. 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death for folks under the age of 35. I’m glad these issues are being discussed. I’m glad these stories are coming out.

That said, I find it incredibly difficult to have stories of depression thrown in my face, over and over, and over again. I want to scream "ENOUGH ALREADY!" I’m still healing from the furor that hit the web after Robin Williams committed suicide. A lot of well intentioned individuals were talking about it. They were discussing the importance of reaching out to people and making sure every suicidal individual out there had access to help. I’m not sure how many of these people realized the negative impact they were having on a lot of people in situations like mine. There’s rarely a day that goes by without me thinking about suicide.

I’m reminded of the R U Ok? campaign that came out of Australia, "encouraging all Australians to regularly and meaningfully ask anyone struggling with life, ‘are you ok?’" It looked like people were randomly asking people "Are you ok?" They asked you that, and seemed to think it discharged them of responsibility. I’ve wanted to answer back "No, I’m not ***king ok," just to see what they would say, what they would do. But I knew full well there was nothing they could do or say for me.

In some respect, it’s a bit like the media campaigns about "speed kills" or "don’t drink and drive," you know, the graphic ads showing the effect of a high speed car crash? It doesn’t seem to have a real effect on people who speed or drink. But it sure as hell has a direct and negative impact on people who have lost loved ones in car crashes caused by people who were speeding or drinking.

I have a favor to ask of you. If you are new to this, if you have no experience of dealing with mental illness (personally or through loved ones), please, do take a moment to consider the impact of your enthusiasm about the issue. Because awareness campaigns are double-edged swords. We need to build awareness without forgetting there are real people, suffering real pain, that sometimes get caught in the cross-fire.

In the meantime, I know that the thing for me to do is withdraw when these things happen. I need to take my distance from the onslaught. And so once more, I shall disconnect for a few days, until the enthusiasm fades a bit, until I can hang out without being confronted with so much talk about mental illness.