Mental Health Experience of a Software Engineer

Dealing with depression is a journey

I am not broken

If you want to help it's best to listen and empathize

I have been a software engineer for 25 years, 16 of them in game development. It has only been in the last two to three years that discussing mental/emotional health has become important to me despite the fact that I’ve been dealing with a ‘low-grade’ form of depression for most of my life.

Depression looks differently for each person and so here is what my depression looks like and how it affects me. The main thing is that I have a lack of energy and motivation. Getting up in the morning is more difficult, focusing at my job is more difficult, wanting to even work can be challenging. Obviously this makes it hard to get my tasks done at work, engage with coworkers and interact in meetings – all of which impacts my performance.

How do I handle this? The first challenge is for me to speak up about it. I generally tell my manager in the first one-on-one meeting I have with him or her. My thinking is that it is important for my manager to understand there are times that I am not going to be as productive and there is not much I can do about it. I also inform my manager that I am actively doing things to help with the depression (like seeing a therapist). This candid conversation goes a long way to build trust so that when I request time off for mental/emotional health reasons my manager understands the reason and need for the time off. This does not make having the conversation easy! I still have a hard time talking about my depression to my managers even after doing this for the past three or four years. Part of the difficulty of having this conversation is the stigma around any type of mental or emotional health. And sharing that I have depression requires a lot of vulnerability, something that is hard for me.

There are other people I may tell If I work closely with them so that they may be aware of the reasons for any drops in my performance or engagement. But I definitely don’t tell everyone. I’m not sure that I’m ready for everyone to know and I don’t think everyone would treat me the same after knowing that I have a form of depression.

Original photo source: Pexels

Once I have had these candid conversations then when I need to take time off to handle my mental/emotional health I do so. I don’t take every day off that I feel depressed – I evaluate if I can push through it and be productive or not. There are times I can push through a day or two, maybe even a week (though I tend to regret doing that!). There are other days I know I can’t be productive and so I will take the day off. Or I would if I had enough PTO/sick days to take off, which was not always the case. This made it challenging and stressful to manage my depression when I had to pick using my PTO for either mental health or for vacation/time with family. I am lucky to work for a company that provides an unlimited PTO policy. It frees me up from having to worry about spending vacation time for mental health versus taking a vacation in the future with my family. I get to do both and that removes a lot of stress, which is important since stress could trigger my depression.

Original photo source: Pexels

Some people have asked me what they can do to help me when I go through my times of depression. My general advice to people is not try to fix me (or anyone dealing with mental/emotional health challenges). I’m not broke! But I do have issues! Some days the best thing to do is just sit and listen to the person and be empathetic. Some days just saying, “Looks like you are going through a tough time. If you want to talk or need anything, I’m here to help.” makes a difference. Removing responsibilities, taking away work or assigning me to tasks that may be ‘less stressful’ is not the best solution. Doing these things communicates that I’m “not good enough”, which for me can make my depression worse. If there is a performance issue it is better to have a candid conversation around it and acknowledge the impact of the depression rather than silently take things away to try to help and be nice.

Dealing with depression is a journey. And one thing I am finding out for myself is that nothing is constant. What used to be routine and consistent with my depression has changed to be a bit more inconsistent. Certain dates still impact me but now there are days that for no reason the depression seems to show up and says hi, remember me? So in a year the things I write here may or may not apply. But for now they do and I hope by sharing them they will help others who find themselves in a similar situation as I am in and help those around us who want to help but don’t know how.

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