Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of programmers complaining about depression and burnout. In fact, I was browsing the programming subreddit today when I saw a video titled Dealing With Depression As A Geek. I don’t care much for watching videos that could have easily been blog posts, but someone in the comments posted a summary and I had a skim. As far as I could tell, the person in the video has a rather pedestrian understanding of depression, so I wrote up my own view as it relates to my profession, programming.

Here’s a totally gnarly table of contents for y’all:

Introduction

Let’s be honest here: programming is one of the most comfortable jobs that have existed in the history of our species. Why do so many of us have trouble handling it?

The video claims that genes are one of the primary drivers behind chronic depression, which is absurd1. I’ll try to paint a better picture of depression in programming and identify the actual causes. Note that I do not intend to examine all of the complexities involved. I also won’t be talking about depression triggered by major events or life crises2.

Why Programmers Get Depressed

The following is a non-exhaustive list of the most frequently-occurring reasons for depression among programmers.

Isolation

The human race has never had so many lonely people as it does now and this is primarily due to technology. Developers in particular tend to be even more cut off from society and much of their interaction with others is through the Internet and social media. It should be self-evident how unhealthy this is.

Programmers don’t like their jobs

Programming professionally is different from programming as a hobby. It’s not fun; it involves a lot of rigor and process. You have non-programming duties such as documentation and attending meetings. You spend a lot of time dealing with others’ code instead of writing your own. Most of us don’t get to choose our projects, and we end up working on stuff that isn’t interesting. Programmers don’t enjoy doing these things, and they wake up dreading going to their jobs3.

Lack of responsibility

When I think of responsibility, I don’t think of some dweebs working on mobile apps or social media bullshit. I think of teachers, doctors, pilots. Consider the humble surgeon, who can kill with a tremor of the hand. When a developer’s hand trembles, they hit undo.

The video summary states:

If you fail at your job, there is real impact to the company. You are not as replaceable as, say, a secretary.

I disagree. Unless you’re part of a small startup or an important manager at your company, you’re just another cog in the corporate machine. This is especially true if you’re at a behemoth like Microsoft or Amazon.

Programming is not fulfilling

Few programmers feel like they are making the world a better place. Either the effects of their work are not readily visible, or they are working at a Google or a Facebook, which are just leaving society worse off.

Compare this to other professions where the work is inherently deeply meaningful and satisfying. Artists, doctors, and counselors are just a few examples.

Not every job has to be fulfilling. When it’s not, you can always do something in your free time to get that fulfillment in your life. What do programmers do? Browse Reddit, play games, and masturbate.

Programmers are emotionally weak

The level of the average developer's emotional development. The level of the average developer’s emotional development.

Look, I have to say it. Programmers are a bunch of big babies. Before you crucify me, this is just an observation I’ve made, having worked closely with many other programmers in my career. They all want to be “hackers” and “ninjas”, yet they cry when they receive code review. I’m not sure why it is this way, but I suspect it’s a result of their social isolation, mentioned above.

“Impostor Syndrome”

I’ll readily admit that I have experienced “impostor syndrome”. There’s nothing at all special about programming to make this a problem unique just to us, as there are highly visible overachievers, in every profession, that people compare themselves to. However, this syndrome is particularly widespread among programmers due to their poor emotional development.

Take Action

Depression is a serious problem which can have terrible consequences on the individual. The first step to treating it is to be honest with ourselves as to why this condition occurs. If you’re a programmer who believes they’re depressed, consider which of the above reasons apply to you, and be objective.

Once you know what you’re dealing with, you can begin changing your life one step at a time. If you’re isolated socially, meet up with people. If you don’t like your job, change it. Replace it with something that doesn’t pay well, if you have to – your mental health is priceless. Consider your priorities in life carefully and adjust your life accordingly.

Also, I would urge every depressed person to begin therapy. However, don’t take medication. That’s a cheap way to escape your problems. Depression isn’t a disorder; it is a mechanism telling you something’s wrong, and you should cherish this. Drugs will not help you. They will only disrupt the normal functioning of your brain.

Conclusion

So that’s what I think, what do you think? Oops, I don’t have comments – too bad! Later!

Footnotes

  1. Genes can certainly predispose someone to a higher risk of depression, but they’re not the cause of depression. 

  2. The video calls this “cyclical depression”. This kind of depression is an entirely valid and healthy reaction to major stressors, though there are good and bad ways of dealing with it. Such strategies are beyond the scope of this blog post. 

  3. There are a lot of other factors that can contribute to dissatisfaction with work, such as a long commute or unpleasant coworkers. However, I’ve heard a lot of people across many different professions complain about such things, and typically, if someone likes the work they do, they’re willing to overlook them.