Software and Mental Health

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

A while back, I was a product manager who was considered to be a rising star.

And then, we hired Sue.

As it turned out, Sue was the shining star that blinded everyone else. Everything about her was perfect — perfect schools (Harvard MBA), grades (always the top of the class), internships (top 5 consulting), hobbies (she was a concert level pianist and a masterchef-level cook in the kitchen).

It seemed that there was nothing that Sue could half-ass.

She once decided to make a meal for our entire group (about 25–30 people) singlehandedly. She commandeered a conference room, and from early hours in the morning till lunch time, kept bringing dishes from her car. When we all showed up for the meal, there were at least 10 unique yummy items that she had been slaving away at least for the last week — prepping, cooking pieces — and finalizing it on the day of. My memory is now hazy, but I don’t think any one of us left the room hungry that day.

As Sue always did, she took on the hardest assignment for product… a new feature that we had been thinking about but didn’t have the resources to invest in.

Sue dived right in and produced this incredible tome (those were the days of waterfall design and development where the entirety of the feature had to be spelt out in advance) that appeared as small novels on everyone’s seats at the conference table. [N.B. Yes, we printed shit out then for review meetings. And no, we don't do that any more.]

I can remember a feeling mix of emotions then: overwhelmed with her competence, slight envy at her instant success, proud of her being my coworker, someone who I could learn from.

On top of this, we were friends. At least that’s what I thought.

One day, Sue was no where to be seen. I looked for her during a break and found her in her office with her doors closed. [Yes kids, we had offices then for product managers. Yes, I believe we can do more focused work when we shut our doors, and the open cubicle culture is not something Im a fan of, but sigh.]

She was in there, and looked super serious. I popped my head in.

“Hey! Is everything OK?”

“Hey Raj. Yeah, all’s well. It’s just that I have a lot going on.”

“Can I help?”

“No, I can handle it. It’s just a lot of stuff to do.”

“Did you speak with K (our manager)?”

“Yeah, and she told me to prioritize and I’m doing that. Listen I don’t mean to be rude but I’d like to focus on this and speak later?”

“Sure thing — speak later Sue!”

I didn’t see Sue for a whole week. She was locked up in her office looking super serious everytime I passed her office. She’d wave occasionally.

The next week, the Sue I knew was back.

Laughing, she proudly told us how her review with the Sales team went — extremely positive of course — and bubbling with ideas on what she needed to do next. I remember grabbing lunch with her and a couple of other coworkers that week.

A few weeks later, the “other” Sue showed up. Moody, behind locked doors.

And with the same issues: “There’s just too much. Too much to do…”

I’d advise the same things — chunk it up, reduce your commitments to be more realistic, speak with your manager to re-prioritize — delegate, delete or defer… and she’d say that yes, she was doing all that but nothing was working.

This went on for a few months. After the third or fourth time, I decided to speak with my manager (who was hers as well). Yes, she said, she was aware of her mood swings. She couldn’t share more but she assured me that Sue was on medication and getting the right help, and we all need to be more understanding of her situation.

That isn’t an uncommon request. Genius is uncommon and often are social misfits who defy convention. Of course, we will be more understanding for the simple reason that Sue’s “down” days included, she was easily the most productive person in the team, hands-down.

And then, something strange happened.

One day, Sue sent out a calendar invite to the team and was going on vacation the following week. This was unusual for someone who’s such a meticulous planner who used to think weeks in advance.

The following week or two later she was back. And I popped over to say hello.

“Hey Raj. I got married.”

What?! I knew she was dating but this was a huge step. It was a small ceremony she explained, only with the nearest friends and family.

I wished her well, and when news of this went out to the team, we all chipped in and bought her a wedding gift (I forget what exactly now).

But something was off. It was the old Sue. She didnt seem happy. At all.

She mumbled something about a visa for her husband to keep him in the country. Clearly it was none of my business to probe any further, and I left it alone, praying for the happy Sue to some back.

Alas, she never did.

Soon after her wedding, we got an email to the entire team: Sue was dead.

She had committed suicide. [Not sure if she left a note behind.]

And just like that, Sue was gone.

The team attended her funeral and paid our last wishes.

“Do you deserve your success?”

Over the years, I’ve remembered this story and wondered what I could’ve done to prevent it. Did I see an issue? yes, we all did. Was she “handling” it? yes, she was.

Bi-polar depression (which I’m guessing, her actual diagnosis wasn’t shared) is a key mental health issue, as is the “Pretender” complex.

I’ve seen up close how folks who are the best in the world struggle with this. And there are no easy answers.

What I’ve chosen to do is to be much more aware of how we can help our coworkers and look for signs of burnout, extreme stress for elongated periods of time and changes in mood/behavior.

And raise the flag.

If we can prevent one more genius from being snuffed out, it’s worth it for the world.

Helpful Resource (Wish I knew about this)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.