blame an industry first, then don’t bother with questions

No, the tech industry isn't especially terrible at dealing with mental illness. No industry really knows how to deal with clinically depressed workers.
sad teddy bear

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard about online activist and pioneer Aaron Swartz’s tragic choice to commit suicide. He was very depressed and the prosecutors who for some inexplicable reason decided it was a terrific idea to threaten him with 30 to 50 years in prison for downloading papers from JSTOR despite the fact that JSTOR declined to go after him, may well have been the final straw. But instead of wondering what this says about how justice is done or mishandled and the consequences of prosecutors who think it’s fine and dandy to bully defendants into punitive plea bargains, psychologist John Grohol decided to use this tragedy as a bully pulpit to accuse tech companies for neglecting people with depression. Aside form being rather ghoulish, Grohol ruched to paint Swartz as the stereotypical overworked, over-stressed startup founder in Silicon Valley when in fact he was working in an established company in NYC, with benefits, regular hours, and staff well aware that he was quite depressed.

But even after being pointed out that he assumed things that weren’t true, Grohol did not relent in blaming tech companies for being insensitive to those suffering from depression, suppressing startup founders from being able to freely talk about their mental health issues, and demanding that tech companies make accommodations for the depressed. The backing for his assertions? Stereotypes, generalizations, and statements made with no supporting evidence or statistics. An allusion to investor confidence in a company ran by someone dealing with depression is brought up as an indictment of the tech industry rather than discussed as an important issue, and the demand to make accommodations for those suffering from depression just as we would for those diagnosed with cancer or diabetes sounds like a nice thought, but means little because a mental health issue is very tricky to accommodate, far trickier than a common physical ailment. Grohol’s article is a textbook example of lazy drive-by punditry made worse by his scientific credentials.

Swartz was being prosecuted by someone whose handling of the legal case against him veered off into the absurd and who happily and boldly portrayed downloading a batch of documents in an electronic archive which did not prevent such batch downloads in the same way you’d detail hacking into an international financial exchange, then wiring tens of millions of ill-gotten dollars into obscure offshore accounts and arguing that Swartz should’ve faced more time in jail than a mafia capo who shot someone during a shakedown gone horribly wrong. When a government’s agents go after you with such undue force, someone with frayed nerves and battling depression could easily have chosen suicide as a form of escape, and it’s both sad and maddening that he did. However, none of this has anything to do with Grohol’s misguided crusade of turning a tech company into a therapist for their employees and challenging a culture he declared to be totally oblivious of mental illness with no proof that it’s actually oblivious or neglectful.

Depression is a very complex mental illness to address and without a clear treatment plan, with potentially years of therapy required to truly overcome it, how does he expect tech companies to accurately diagnose their workers and refer them for treatment? We can accommodate a cancer patient by giving him or her time off for surgeries and rounds of chemo. We can accommodate a diabetic by making sure he or she can test blood sugar levels often and provide alternative food in a cafeteria to help with the necessary lifestyle changes. That’s easy. Expensive, but easy. But a depressed worker isn’t necessarily going to benefit from a few weeks or an entire month off, or new food in the cafeteria, or an extra few breaks. It’s not an issue of simple logistics. The worker will need to find out why he or she is so depressed, deal with potentially very complex issues, as well as identify a new path in life. What if he or she needs to quit altogether, move to a new city, and peruse a different career? Should we help with that too?

How could we stretch ourselves to accommodate years of therapy, potentially shifting demands, and still run a viable, functional business? What are we supposed to do for someone who can’t take a pill and feel better or take some time off and return healthier and more capable? Grohol provides no answers, but then again, he doesn’t have to figure out how to deal with this issue, he’s only there to demand that something is to be done. And that’s what makes him a lazy, drive-by pundit rather than an expert trying to bring attention to an issue, and his use of Swartz’s very complicated situation as a lead further drives his intellectual sloth into the realm of sleaze. if you want someone to address a specific issue, the least you could do is provide support for why you see it as an issue and offer at least one or two concrete ways to deal with it. Simply demanding that something gets done makes it seem as if you’re not very interested in actually helping. And those afflicted with depression and struggling to keep working and face the day deserve expert advice on coping, not the expert’s delegation of his professional duties to their bosses.

# tech // aaron swartz / business / culture / depression


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