Meet the developer group trying to break the mental health stigma in tech, where moving fast and breaking things leads developers to burnout and health issues


ed finkler OSMI

  • In 2013, developer Ed Finkler founded Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI), an organization that promotes mental health in tech through online resources, handbooks, research, and speaking at tech conferences.
  • OSMI data suggests that developers face higher rates of mental health issues than the general population.
  • The group attributes this to how developers often find themselves working long hours with little sleep, leading to serious health risks and a heightened possibility of burnout.
  • Volunteers at OSMI hope to break down the stigma of talking about mental health, encourage people to reach out for help, create a more supportive environment at tech companies, and provide free resources that anyone can use. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

There’s a toll that can come with the “move fast and break things” mentality of Silicon Valley. While developers may work late into the night to hack the next big thing into existence, that also comes with the risk of long-term effects to their health and burnout.

That’s why developer Ed Finkler wants to raise awareness about mental health issues to the tech community and encourage people to talk about it. He started the organization Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) in 2013 after he gave a talk at a conference for PHP, a programming language that has been used for building websites like Facebook and Yahoo.

Rather than speaking on a technical topic, as was usual at the conference, Finkler opened up about mental health issues he struggled with since middle school, including depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

After his talk, many people reached out to him, and Finkler realized he could do something more. 

“I felt like I struck a nerve, hit something that was important to talk about,” Finkler told Business Insider. “I thought about what I wanted to do about that…Eventually what I sort of settled on is, hey, I like doing talks. I like doing technical talks, but what if I did a talk about mental health?”

Since then, he’s gone on to do 10 to 15 talks a year about mental health. OSMI was initially funded via Indiegogo campaigns, but is now a registered non-profit powered by donations and a team of volunteers. Its members create resources like online forums and handbooks, conduct research, and speak at tech conferences, including the prominent KubeCon.

It also performs an annual survey of the IT industry to gather information on mental health issues in the developer community. That survey’s findings are released under a Creative Commons license that allows anyone to reuse that content in their own conference talks, presentations, and research. The idea is to make it accessible to anyone.

“It’s in the tradition of collaborative learning and sharing in open source culture. We would talk openly about those kinds of issues,” Finkler said. “There’s something natural to that.”

‘There’s nowhere to go for support’

OSMI’s research suggests that people working in the tech industry experience mental health issues at a much higher rate than the general population. According to OSMI data, 51% of tech professionals have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. By comparison, 19.1% of U.S. adults experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Stigma around mental health issues certainly isn’t limited to the tech industry, Jen Akullian, psychologist and OSMI advisory board member, told Business Insider. But there are factors within the tech industry that might exacerbate the problem. 

“There are still those who believe that people who struggle with mental health are lazy and incapable and dangerous and shouldn’t need to take treatment, or it’s their fault,” Akullian said. “We know from research that it leads to people not reaching out for help. It’s more complicated for people in tech. There’s a higher level of expectation that you function really highly.”

Some of that comes from the still-pervasive idea of “move fast and break things,” the motto once championed by Facebook.

“Tech seems to attract high-functioning motivated people that have high expectations of themselves,” Akullian said. “When you pair that with an industry that expects a lot from you and an industry that’s innovative, it means that for innovation to happen, there needs to be a lot of failure, and a lot of things have to break.” 

Jen Akullian

‘They don’t know where to go’

Akullian says that tech workers are often put in high-stress situations where they don’t have the opportunity to sleep, work regular hours, or go on vacation. Tech workers often find themselves isolated, as they spend a fair chunk of their day working alone, or work from their home or other remote locations. And many startups, especially earlier-stage ones, don’t have an HR department to offer support or help when things go wrong.

“A lot of them find themselves in companies where this area isn’t given attention,” Akullian said. “There’s nowhere to go for support. People tend to keep it to themselves, and they don’t reach out for help. They don’t know where to go. It seems like a pervasive problem.”

The problem is serious enough that it can end careers, she says.

“Sometimes it leads to burnout,” Akullian said. “Sometimes it leads to people quitting their jobs or quitting their careers or being very unhappy and not feeling the best they can and being the best professional that they can.”

Exacerbating the issue, she believes, is the way that some tech companies focus so much on the outcome that they ignore the human cost of building their businesses.

“There’s a lot of real problems there,” Finkler said. “There’s also a tendency for plugging in people and looking at people as sort of a set of skills as opposed to a whole human being. That tendency to look for that and treat people as resources, I think, is really problematic. I think it’s not good for employees and it’s not good for employers.”

‘Companies are starting to get it’

Akullian says that if there’s any good news here, it’s that the tech industry is slowly but surely coming around to understanding the scope of the problem — and take steps to address it, by working with the OSMI and undertaking other mental health support initiatives. 

“Companies are starting to get it,” Akullian said. “If they want their employees to be most productive, most effective, most successful, this is an area that needs to be supported and at least a conversation where they feel comfortable approaching it and asking for help.”

OSMI’s programs are so in-demand in the industry, Akullian says, as tech event organizers look for ways to help fight the stigma around mental health issues and encourage attendees to get whatever help they need, and employers look for ways to offer their own institutional forms of support.

“As tech events are realizing how mental health is impacting their audience and professionals in the field, they’re showing interest in bringing the conversation into their events,” Akullian said.

The goal is that by opening the platform everywhere, perhaps the OSMI can start conversations in places where they’re most needed.

“That’s what OSMI is trying to do, break down the stigma,” Akullian said. “When people start talking about it, we can refer our colleagues to someone, ask HR to put something in place for support, or at the very least, encourage people to reach out when they need help.” 

SEE ALSO: Software freedom vs human freedom: A surge of activism is rocking open source developers, as programmers fight to stop their software from being used for ‘evil’

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