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Geeks & Depression: Highlighting Mental Health Issues In The Tech Community

Eileen Pace
TPR News
Glass-enclosed ping-pong area at Geekdom offers opportunity for hackers to relax, brainstorm and unwind.

  At 6:30 p.m. at Geekdom, many of the rising stars in the tech world are still working past the end of the traditional workday. Some are tapping on laptops, writing their blog entries, or maybe checking Facebook or Reddit. And they’re playing ping-pong. It’s one way app and software designers relax, an opportunity to talk  to each other on a less formal basis, and maybe come up with some genius ideas.

Hackers, inventors, designers all spend long hours in front of a computer screen.

But last Monday, many of the Geekdom crowd put down their devices and attended Mitch Altman’s seminar, "Geeks and Depression" to learn more about how to help their colleagues – or get help for themselves.

Altman, a longtime computer hacker and inventor, is traveling the globe to talk about mental health issues that often occur among his colleagues in the tech world. Altman has found what he believes is a high rate of depression among his colleagues.

“After a friend of mine committed suicide at the end of 2011, I wrote a very personal, public blog post, and I was overwhelmed with comments by people talking about either their depression, their attempts at suicide or friend of theirs, family members," Altman said. "And I realized that this is a big problem in our community that needs to be addressed. We need to talk about these things openly.”

A Software developer Skyped into the meetup, joined by psychiatrists from the UT Health Science Center, who came in person, along with Jeremy Zunker, founder and CTO of ParLevel Systems. 

“I would say probably in the last couple of years people have started talking about it,” Zunker said. He saw Altman speak at 28c3, a hacker convention in Berlin. 

Dr. Jodi Arnold, a psychiatrist with the UT Health Science Center, said while tekkies often feel more socially isolated than their contemporaries outside the industry, the theory that depression is a bigger problem among geeks has not been sufficiently studied.

“I would assume, of course, there’s social isolation," Arnold said, "but I’ve never seen a study that looked at, ‘Do people that consider themselves geeks or computer-interested, are they’re more depressed than others.’  Social isolation, absolutely, is associated with depression."

But Altman, who has taken his Geeks and Depression meetups all over the world, believes there are other factors besides isolation that cause geeks to have  mental health issues.

“Certainly for people my age – I’m 57 – growing up being geeky was kind of dangerous. Bullies picked on geeks much more than other groups,” Altman said. “There are self-esteem issues around that and that’s one of the things that can lead to serious depression. It did for me.”

Cynthia Phelps, founder of Inner Ally, has created apps that individuals can use for depression – relaxation techniques for anxiety and others to increase levels of self-compassion.

“Every day, your app would go ‘ding,” and it would say, ‘hey check in with us,’” Phelps said. “And you actually go in and check in and kind of rate your level of anxiety and depression, how well you’re doing on your productivity and your creativity and your interpersonal relationships.”

Phelps says the apps have been well-received. She is working with the Veterans Administration to get meditation apps into the hands of service members returning from the war with PTSD.

Back at Geekdom, hackers talk about ending the stigma of depression. Zunker said. "Having experienced depression myself and getting help for that, I feel it should be okay for people to talk about depression. And there shouldn't be a stigma about it. That's one of the things that causes people to not seek help."

Altman continues to take the message of ending the stigma of depression to other hackers around the country and around the world, advising people to talk to each other about their own situation -- and especially, to not be afraid to ask if one suspects a colleague or friend is suffering. He said the hacker space is a supportive community in all kinds of ways – and it can be a support community for mental health as well.

“We need community in our lives, and for geeky people, hacker spaces work great. And they’re often artist spaces, or other purposes like Geekdom, and they’re great,” he said.

Watch the Geeks and Depression panel from the 28c3 convention in Berlin:

Eileen Pace is a veteran radio and print journalist with a long history of investigative and feature reporting in San Antonio and Houston, earning more than 50 awards for investigative reporting, documentaries, long-form series, features, sports stories, outstanding anchoring and best use of sound.