The Tech Industry’s Depression Problem

Adderall bottle and capsules - The Tech Industry's Depression Problem

No one who pays attention to the tech industry should be surprised that it has what The Atlantic Monthly recently dubbed “a depression problem.” Why wouldn’t it? It’s a hyper-competitive environment in which people work tremendously long hours, fail often, and judge their self-worth by their earnings and status in an often hierarchical, often conformist, culture. That’s pretty much a recipe for unhappiness.

But while it’s good to see the problem getting air time, the prescriptions being talked about are woefully inadequate representations of tech culture.

Not only is Silicon Valley a breeding ground for depression, it’s also an environment most resistant to a humanistic approach to treating it.

Silicon Valley is fine—in theory if not in practice—with cognitive-behavioral approaches like getting enough sleep and eating right (though it usually calls them “life-hacks”). But anything beyond that—like the idea that depression might actually have a psychological cause—is generally met with a skepticism bordering on aggression. Not for nothing did PandoDaily—an industry cheerleader dressed in “journalism” drag—recently run an article called “A Confederacy of Quacks: The War Against Antidepressants,” that disputed (citing studies from the 90s rather than current research) evidence showing that anti-depressants are little better than placebos and claimed (again, without a review of the current literature) that talk therapy doesn’t work. (Mostly, it contained bromides conflating talk therapy with Scientology and saying that research conducted by psychologists can’t be trusted because anti-depressants threaten their racket. Which is what passes for scholarship on the Internet.)

The tech industry is the epitome of a reductionist culture—many of its leading luminaries literally believe that the human mind can be reduced to code and “uploaded” into software intact—and so it searches for a material fix to everything mental, even that which ain’t broken. “Use of illicit drugs becomes a part of Silicon Valley’s Work Culture,” said the San Jose Mercury News. We’re dealing with people who think their minds are actually better on medication even if they don’t have depression. “Adderall Has a Tech Industry Problem,” announced an article in Model View Culture, suggesting that the sheer number of tech workers who take Adderall for “cognitive enhancement” by pretending to have ADHD is doing real damage to the diagnosis.

The tech industry is drenched in drugs, yet the discussion of depression in Silicon Valley tends to ignore the fact that tech workers are actually more likely to be on medication, and less likely to try a therapeutic alternative. Which would be fine if the drugs were in fact widely effective—but the tech industry’s depression problem persists, despite how far tech workers are willing to go to get the drugs they lionize.

This isn’t surprising, however, as the tech culture is also one that actively discourages self-reflection. Much ink has been spilled about how “brogrammers” only hire other “brogrammers”—no women, people in middle age or older, or minorities, need apply. In fact,  as CNet reported in August, tech companies say they’re desperate for skilled workers—but still won’t hire people who don’t act like the 20-something delayed adolescents who already work for them.

The selection bias in the tech industry is so large that Silicon Valley could see it from space if they were actually looking, and the link to depression should be clear: a culture that refuses to hire people who are in any way different is one that lacks any capacity for introspection. They don’t have it, and they don’t want it: the idea that investigating whether one’s assumptions about who you are and what makes you happy could be relevant to issues of depression is dismissed. Such investigation, in the words of PandoDaily, is a “grotesque mixture of mysticism and venality.” Okay then.

And to think it has a depression problem.

Really, how could the tech industry not? The elements of their culture they’re most proud of are the most toxic. A refusal to think humanistically tops the list.

— Benjamin Wachs

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