The picture of the tortured artist has endured for centuries: creative geniuses who struggle with their metaphorical demons and don’t relate to life the same way as most people. Today, we know some of this can be attributed to mental illness: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many others. We have modern stories about this and plenty of anecdotal information that fuels the popular belief in a link between creativity and mental illness.
But science has also started asking questions about the link between mental illness and creativity. A recent study has suggested that creative professionals may be more genetically predisposed to mental illness. In the web industry, whether designer, dev, copywriter, or anything else, we’re often creative professionals. The numbers suggest that mental illness hits the web industry especially hard.
Our industry has made great strides in compassionate discussion of disability, with a focus on accessibility and events like Blue Beanie Day. But even though we’re having meaningful conversations and we’re seeing progress, issues related to diversity, inclusion, and sexual harassment are still a major problem for our industry. Understanding and acceptance of mental health issues is an area that needs growth and attention just like many others.
When it comes to mental health, we aren’t quite as understanding as we think we are. According to a study published by the Center of Disease Control, 57% of the general population believes that society at large is caring and sympathetic toward people with mental illness; but only 25% of people with mental health symptoms believed the same thing. Society is less understanding and sympathetic regarding mental illness than it thinks it is.
Where’s the disconnect? What does it look like in our industry? It’s usually not negligence or ill will on anybody’s part. It has a lot more to do with people just not understanding the prevalence and reality of mental illness in the workplace. We need to begin discussing mental illness as we do any other personal challenge that people face.
This article is no substitute for a well-designed scientific study or a doctor’s advice, and it’s not trying to declare truths about mental illness in the industry. And it certainly does not intend to lump together or equalize any and all mental health issues, illnesses, or conditions. But it does suspect that plenty of people in the industry struggle with their mental health at some point or another, and we just don’t seem to talk about it. This doesn’t seem to make sense in light of the sense of community that web professionals have been proud of for decades.
We reached out to a few people in our industry who were willing to share their unique stories to bring light to what mental health looks like for them in the workplace. Whether you have your own struggles with mental health issues or just want to understand those who do, these stories are a great place to start the conversation.
Meet the contributors
Gerry: I’ve been designing websites since the late ‘90s, starting out in UI design, evolving into an IA, and now in a UX leadership role. Over my career, I’ve contributed to many high-profile projects, organized local UX events, and done so in spite of my personal roadblocks.
Brandon Gregory: I’ve been working in the web industry since 2006, first as a designer, then as a developer, then as a manager/technical leader. I’m also a staff member and regular contributor at A List Apart. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2002 and almost failed out of college because of it, although I now live a mostly normal life with a solid career and great family. I’ve been very open about my condition and have done some writing on it on Medium to help spread awareness and destigmatize mental illnesses.
Stephen Keable: I’ve been building and running websites since 1999, both professionally and for fun. Worked for newspapers, software companies, and design agencies, in both permanent and freelance roles, almost always creating front-end solutions, concentrating on a user-centered approach.
Bri Piccari: I’ve been messing around with the web since MySpace was a thing, figuring out how to customize themes and make random animations fall down from the top of my profile. Professionally, I’ve been in the field since 2010, freelancing while in college before transitioning to work at small agencies and in-house for a spell after graduation. I focus on creating solid digital experiences, employing my love for design with [a] knack for front-end development. Most recently, I started a small design studio, but decided to jump back into more steady contract and full-time work, after the stress of owning a small business took a toll on my mental health. It was a tough decision, but I had to do what was best for me. I also lead my local AIGA chapter and recently got my 200-hour-yoga-teacher certification.
X: I also started tinkering with the web on Myspace, and started working on websites to help pay my way through college. I just always assumed I would do something else to make a living. Then, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. My [original non-web] field was not a welcoming and supportive place for that, so I had to start over, in more ways than one. The web industry hadn’t gone anywhere, and it’s always been welcoming to people with random educational histories, so I felt good about being able to make a living and staying healthy here. But because of my experience when I first tried to be open about my illness, I now keep it a secret. I’m not ashamed of it; in fact, it’s made me live life more authentically. For example, in my heart, I knew I wanted to work on the web the entire time.
The struggle is real
Mental health issues are as numerous and unique as the people who struggle with them. We asked the contributors what their struggles look like, particularly at work in the web industry.
G: I have an interesting mix of ADD, dyslexia, and complex PTSD. As a result, I’m an incomplete person, in a perpetual state of self-doubt, toxic shame, and paralyzing anxiety. I’ve had a few episodes in my past where a requirement didn’t register or a criticism was taken the wrong way and I’ve acted less than appropriately (either through panic, avoidance, or anger). When things go wrong, I deal with emotional flashbacks for weeks.
Presenting or reading before an audience is a surreal experience as well. I go into a zone where I’m never sure if I’m speaking coherently or making any sense at all until I’ve spoken with friends in the audience afterward. This has had a negative effect on my career, making even the most simple tasks anxiety-driven.
BG: I actually manage to at least look like I have everything together, so most people don’t know I have bipolar until I tell them. On the inside, I struggle—a lot. There are bouts of depression where I’m exhausted all day and deal with physical pain, and bursts of mania where I take unnecessary risks and make inappropriate outbursts, and I can switch between these states with little or no notice. It’s a balancing act to be sure, and I work very hard to keep it together for the people in my life.
SK: After the sudden death of my mother, I started suffering from panic attacks. One of which came on about 30 mins after getting to work, I couldn’t deal with the attack at work, so suddenly went home without telling anyone. Only phoning my boss from a lay-by after I’d been in tears at the side of the road for a while. The attacks also triggered depression, which has made motivation when I’m working from home so hard that I actually want to spend more time at the office. Luckily my employer is very understanding and has been really flexible.
BP: Depending upon the time of year, I struggle greatly, with the worst making it nearly impossible to leave my apartment. As most folks often say, I’ve gotten rather good at appearing as though I’ve got my shit together—typically, most people I interact with have no idea what I’m going through unless I let them in. It wasn’t until recently that my mental health began to make a public appearance, as the stress of starting my own business and attempting to “have it all” made it tough to continue hiding it. There are definitely spans of time where depression severely affects my ability to create and interface with others, and “fake it till ya make it” doesn’t even cut it. I’m currently struggling with severe anxiety brought on by stress. Learning to manage that has been a process.
X: I have been fortunate to be a high-functioning bipolar person for about 5 years now, so there really isn’t a struggle you can really see. The struggle is the stress and anxiety of losing that stability, and especially of people finding out. I take medication, have a routine, a support system, and a self-care regimen that is the reason why I am stable, but if work starts [to] erode my work-life balance, I can’t protect that time and energy anymore. In the past, this has started to happen when I’ve been asked to routinely pull all-nighters, work over the weekend, travel often, or be surrounded by a partying and drinking culture at work. Many people burn out under those conditions, but for me, it could be dangerous and send me into a manic episode, or even [make me] feel suicidal. I struggle with not knowing how far I can grow in my career, because a lot of the things you do to prove yourself and to demonstrate that you’re ready for more responsibility involves putting more on your plate. What’s the point of going after a big role if it’ll mean that I won’t be able to take care of myself? The FOMO [(fear of missing out)] gets bad.
Making it work
There are different ways that people can choose to—or choose not to—address the mental problems they struggle with. We’re ultimately responsible for making our own mental health decisions, and they are different for everyone. In the meantime, the rent has to get paid. Here’s how our contributors cope with their situations at work to make it happen.
G: I started seeing a therapist, which has been an amazing help. I’ve also worked to change my attitude about criticism—I ask more clarifying questions, looking to define the problem, rather than get mad, defensive, or sarcastic. I’ve learned to be more honest with my very close coworkers, making them aware of my irrational shortcomings and asking for help. Also, because I’ve experienced trauma in personal and professional life, I’m hypersensitive to the emotions of others. Just being around a heated argument or otherwise heightened situation could put my body into a panic. I have to take extra special care in managing personalities, making sure everyone in a particular situation feels confident that they’re set up for success.
BG: Medicine has worked very well for me, and I’m very lucky in that regard. That keeps most of my symptoms at a manageable level. Keeping my regular schedule and maintaining some degree of normalcy is a huge factor in remaining stable. Going to work, sleeping when I should, and keeping some social appointments, while not always easy, keep me from slipping too far in either direction. Also, writing has been a huge outlet for me and has helped others to better understand my condition as well. Finding some way to express what you’re going through is huge.
SK: I had several sessions of bereavement counseling to help with the grief. I also made efforts to try and be more physically active each day, even if just going for a short walk on my lunch break. Working had become a way of escaping everything else that was going on at the time. Before the depression I used to work from home two days a week, however found these days very hard being on my own. So I started working from the office every weekday. Thankfully, through all of this, my employer was incredibly supportive and simply told me to do what I need to do. And it’s made me want to stay where I work more than before, as I realize how lucky I am to have their support.
BP: Last winter I enrolled in a leadership/yoga teacher training [program] with a goal of cultivating a personal practice to better manage my depression and anxiety. Making the jump to be in an uncomfortable situation and learn the value of mindfulness has made a huge difference in my ability to cope with stress. Self-care is really big for me, and being aware of when I need to take a break. I’ve heard it called high-functioning depression and anxiety. I often take on too much and learning to say no has been huge. Therapy and a daily routine have been incredibly beneficial as well.
X: The biggest one is medicine, it’s something I will take for the rest of my life and it’s worth it to me. I did a form of therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for a couple of years. The rest is a consistent regimen of self-care, but there are a couple of things that are big for work. Not working nights or weekends, keeping it pretty 9–5. Walking to and from the office or riding my bike. I started a yoga practice immediately after getting diagnosed, and the mental discipline it’s given me dampens the intensity of how I react to stressful situations at work. This isn’t to say that I will refuse to work unless it’s easy. Essentially, if something catches on fire, these coping strategies help me keep my shit together for long enough to get out.
There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness, in the web industry as much as anywhere else. Some are benign but annoying; others are pretty harmful. Here are some of the things we wish others knew about us and our struggles.
G: Nothing about my struggle is rational. It seems as if my body is wired to screw everything up and wallow in the shame of it. I have to keep moving, working against myself to get projects as close to perfect as possible. However, I am wired to really care about people, and that is probably why I’ve been successful in UX.
BG: Just because I look strong doesn’t mean I don’t need support. Just because I have problems doesn’t mean I need you to solve them. Sometimes, just checking in or being there is the best thing for me. I don’t want to be thought of as broken or fragile (although I admit, sometimes I am). I am more than my disorder, but I can’t completely ignore it either.
Also, there are still a lot of stigmas surrounding mental illness, to the point that I didn’t feel safe admitting to my disorder to a boss at a previous job. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that are often classified as legitimate disabilities, but employees may not be safe admitting that they have one—that’s the reality we live with.
SK: For others who are going through grief-related depression, I would say that talking about it with friends, family, and even strangers helps you process it a lot. And the old cliché that time is a healer really is true. Also, for any employers, be supportive [of those] with mental health conditions—as supportive as you would [be of those] with physical health situations. They will pay you back.
BP: I am a chronically ambitious human. Oftentimes, this comes from a place of working and doing versus dealing with what is bothering or plaguing me at the time. Much of my community involvement came from a place of needing a productive outlet. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have accomplished a lot through that—however, there are times where I simply need a break. I’m learning to absorb and understand that, as well as become OK with it.
X: I wish people knew how much it bothers me to hear the word bipolar being used as an adjective to casually describe things and people. It’s not given as a compliment, and it makes it less likely that I will ever disclose my illness publicly. I also wish people knew how many times I’ve come close to just being open about it, but held back because of the other major diversity and inclusion issues in the tech industry. Women have to deal with being called moody and erratic. People stereotype the ethnic group I belong to as being fiery and ill-tempered. Why would I give people another way to discriminate against me?