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The Couch Cone of Silence

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This is Geek Mental Help Week. We’re participating because we want to make it safer for people in our industry to talk about mental health. Join in or follow along at @geekmentalhelp and #geekmentalhelp.

About five years ago, I bought a cushy couch for my office. (Okay, yes, I did get the model that could flatten into an emergency nap station, but let’s just say that I plan for contingencies—it sounds more professional that way.) Our projects required a lot of office-to-office visiting to discuss situations in person, and eventually, said couch (and therefore, my office) became a veritable beacon, attracting anyone looking for an excuse to decompress. Such is the life of a one-couch, 50-chair business.

Project chats could turn quickly into personal deep dives. I learned which to expect by the way people knocked on my door and asked if I was busy. The biggest tip-off was closing of the door as they came in.

Most people just wanted someone to listen. I’d hear grumblings about managers and stress, and sometimes they’d ask for advice. But gradually, I sometimes also heard about anxiety, depression, emotional baggage, counseling, complicated diagnoses, and the merits of medications. Finding out what people were dealing with often left me with absolutely no idea what to say. I’m no therapist.

How was I supposed to respond? Labeling something a “mental health issue” makes it feel amorphous and scary—unknown, subjective territory that’s best left to professionals. But mental health is not a Boolean value; it’s a spectrum we’re all on, and one that’s always fluctuating, though we may define those fluctuations with other names. Some conditions are temporary, some are precipitated by events, some are genetic, and some can be caused by medications taken for innocuous, unrelated reasons. We are complex adaptive systems affected by situations, and no one is on the forever side of “not mentally ill.” In light of that, there is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. No one should feel alone. When our friends and colleagues are struggling, we don’t have to be a professional to help them fight that fight.

It’s very natural to just jump in, but it’s very, very important to first learn about what is going on under the surface and behind the scenes. Internal struggles aren’t easy to see, mental health-related or not. I have a couple of extroverted, life-of-the-party friends who battle major depression, and even overcompensate for it because they are expected to be “the fun ones.” It must be exhausting. Like many, many conditions, depression doesn’t affect everyone in the same way—it isn’t defined so simply as “noticeably sad and constantly crying.” The signs and symptoms vary because the condition (whether temporary or congenital) is just an overlay, a layer, a facet. It doesn’t define the person. In other words, “you’re still you.”

Like my friends, people can do a great job at hiding the dark sides of their struggles. Maybe a coworker is 15-20 minutes late to work every day, but it’s a win for them to be there at all. It took three hours for them to gear up the physical energy to simply get dressed, and everything else they’ve got in the tank to make it home later. Or how about the calmest, most mellow person at the office? Perhaps they’re riding a roller coaster without a seatbelt, experiencing states that take them from happy, energized, and on top of the world to despair and crushing loss in a moment. They’re very aware that they aren’t really feeling those things, yet that’s what they’re feeling. And all because their head is trying to keep standard chemicals in the brain perfectly balanced, only theirs slightly over- and under-calibrates.

Little do you know, they’re making impossible choices—like deciding whether to handle their condition through sheer grit or to take a medication that dulls their symptoms, yet affects acuity as the dosage increases. It might even make them seem glazed over and stoned to someone who didn’t know any better. How do you choose between your health and your job?

It’s also important to mention that many mental health conditions affect quality of life so significantly that they are classified as disabilities—legally afforded accommodations and protections against discrimination. In reality, disclosing disabilities can be devastating to a career. Even advocates at disability services groups cautiously discuss the potential ramifications of sharing with HR, managers, and coworkers. An employee might just as soon be told to “suck it up,” passed over for promotion, not hired in the first place, or shifted slowly to the door, as have the chance of being granted accommodations that would greatly ease their ability to earn a living. But that’s daily life for some: hacking away at an impossible server issue while exploding inside from anxiety, or somehow channeling creative energy into design work when there’s a pull to just end things. It takes guts to go to work every day.

When someone bravely opens up about their lives, they aren’t in search of platitudes, yet we tend to lean on what we’ve seen modeled. That might mean grasping beyond the realm of real experiences. With rare exceptions, movies, TV, and books love to present the extremes—stereotypes for the sake of plot. They treat mental health issues like comic relief, reasons the “heros” of the story should be afraid or on guard, or treat others with pity bordering on condescension. This is disrespectful, ill-informed, and only serves to miseducate on a mass scale, leaving stereotypes and stigma to go hand-in-hand. We’re better than that.

So, how do we respond to and support others in the most respectful and honorable way possible?

Specifically ask how they would like for you to be there and support them. They might just want an open door or someone to have lunch with sometimes. Don’t assume they’re expecting a rescuer or someone to fix things. In this moment, they are just opening up and talking as a means of easing the weight that’s on their shoulders.

Do be a friend who “checks in.” Show that you’re around—you don’t have to talk long, just don’t “disappear” on them.

Do talk about other things, but don’t not talk about the condition, either. They probably don’t want to talk about it all the time, and would love to have a distraction, but it’s also good to ask them about what they’re going through, and for them to explain more about it and suggest good, accurate resources to read.

Don’t assume they’ve forgotten the internet exists. They have likely already been online and investigated the symptoms or condition thoroughly. Think twice before sending them reading materials and links to websites, blogs, forums, or articles, especially those written by others with similar issues. This implies they haven’t thought to look themselves, and there’s a chance that content written by those in worse situations can bring them down and play on fears that things can’t get better. While you’re at it, don’t suggest (or base suggestions for treatment on) movies, TV shows, or books because a character seems to have similar issues.

Don’t say things like, “Can’t you take a pill for that?” It not only diminishes the issue by implying that medication is some sort of cure-all (which it isn’t), someone may not even need medication, may be sensitive to it, already be on some, or have tried many already without finding ones that help. They might even have personal reasons not to take it.

Don’t think they’ve never heard about counseling or treatment. It can be very helpful to talk to a professional, but it is ultimately a personal choice to decide when the time is right to do so, and whom to see.

If they’re an employee, ask what sort of accommodations would help them at work. A willingness to make accommodations and support them is huge, even if they choose not to ask for those accommodations in the end, or they suggest agreeable compromises. Ask what would be best for the particular person, such as if remote work might help or be too isolating, or if a flexible schedule would be best.

One of my personal tenets is this: make time for people. Rejection is subtly transmitted in enumerable ways, so be mindful and learn to listen. We don’t have to know what to do, just know how to be there and how to go about it, whether it’s an afternoon coffee run together, a ready couch, or just letting others know they’re worthwhile.

In our industry in particular, part of our very job is to consider people, their lives, their needs, and how to optimize everything around personal experiences so that no one is left feeling excluded or forgotten. Accessibility and inclusion stand for more than what we craft on a bright screen someplace.

Note: only a trained mental health professional is qualified to make a diagnosis. If you’re coping with personal struggles, know that you have lots of people out there to support you. Reach out to find them, and don’t give up.

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