Why Is Sillicon Valley So Damn Sad (And Suicidal)?

When 16-hour days and sleepless nights are revered as markers for “making it” in life, things tend to go off the railings. Fast.

There’s a heavy amount of posturing in Silicon Valley. You don’t have to travel too far in either direction down El Camino Real to sense that uncomfortable, overarching shadow. Every tech startup (and venture capitalist firm) is fluffing their plumage for the next one to see — on physical billboards, Facebook-pushed ads, on the outer skin of BART buses. It’s a cultural cohort that, without question, has decided that the work-life balance is, apparently, a 100:1 factor.

They’re clocking eighty-plus-hour weeks, fasting to save precious from eating that can otherwise be supplanted for coding and “not being evil,” acquiring little to no sleep, taking nootropics (smart drugs) drugs by the bucket load. People here — in The Valley — are drinking untreated stream water, the same ones that tout sane sciences and daily mindfulness habits, because they both may provide the keys to “figuring it out,” whatever out may be.

But why are so many self-pillaging? It’s simple, really: Silicon Valley toutes unattainable innovation and prestige as a hallmarks of a life well lived. Everyone seems hellbent on building the next YouTube, or Facebook, or Instagram, or Lyft, or have been hired on by those who yearn to, working their staff down to the proverbial bone — bone marrow, that is. It’s a culture of scarcity; a community where there’s never enough success, money, time, not of anything. So, therefore, acquiring a fuck-ton of said something is of the utmost importance. Above all.

But at what cost, what’s the price tag for those lofty salary earnings, social capital gains, and satiated scarcities? Well, frankly, it appears to be their mental health.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people suffer from mental health issue, with progressive urban centers — like Silicon Valley, San Francisco, etc. — often showing higher rates of manic depression, bipolar, and other like-minded illnesses than others. And I, without the slightest bit of hesitation, would say that figure doesn’t even scratch the surface in Silicon Valley. (Far too many of those suffering feel ashamed to come forward for help, scared to reveal their achilles heel, choosing to stay in the proverbial shadows to corrode in silence.)

In 2016, a study by psychiatrist Dr. Michael Freeman identified the relationship between entrepreneurship and depression. And by the end of the years-long study, he found that many of the personality traits found in entrepreneurs — like, say, creativity, extroversion, open mindedness and a propensity for risk — just so happen to be highly correlated traits with ADHD, bipolar spectrum conditions, depression and substance abuse.

But, ironically enough, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking news; we’ve known about the links between innovators and depression for decades. It’s that just now entrepreneurship is hip and cool, no matter the toll.

Freeman, too, managed to extrapolate a quasi-tangible figure to give us all a gauge on the problem: nearly half of the entrepreneurs said they experienced mental health issues at some point in their lives, and that estimate is likely on the conservative side. The California-based psychiatrists also says having more resources available would make a huge difference, and he calls for more MBA programs and tech incubators to educate people about mental health issues.

Well, thankfully, that seems to be just the case.

Amy Buechler is a psychotherapist who works at Y Combinator, one of The Valley’s most prominent and respected tech-incubators. Aside from sharing her own struggles with mental health in her own ventures, courtesy of a one-on-one interview in Fast Company, she too lamented on the fact that these pressing issues are particularly tricky for entrepreneurs to navigate. And they’re not in the slightest bit helped by the newfound notoriety that comes with tech-born success. (Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, the list goes on.)

“Being open and vulnerable is hard in general — really hard. Entrepreneurs themselves aren’t any more or less afraid of than the rest of us,” she said. “What’s changing is how society views entrepreneurs — they’re becoming celebrities, and with that comes scrutiny and high expectations.”

Nevertheless, she’s optimistic that the stigma is starting to disappear. (However I, with a glass that never seems to be half full, am far more skeptical; I don’t see this wave of anxiety breaking anytime soon, unless the market itself changes for the better.)

But Y Combinator is trying to be part of that positive shift. (And, by doing so, help fill my metaphoric glass.) The accelerator has now invested in a nonprofit called Innerspace that hosts workshops on communication and emotional awareness and offers founder-friendly therapists.

“We’ve negotiated a deal with one of these clinics to lower the cost of therapy,” she says. “We’re doing everything we can to make it as easy as possible to access psychotherapy so founders are happy and healthy.”

About two years ago, The Atlantic published an ominous front page piece titled, The Silicon Valley Suicides. To spare you a lengthy read — and to support my millenial TL;DR kin — it gave a window into the how the decay of Silicon Valley’s mental health isn’t just affecting the current cast of CEOs, engineers, and creatives; it’s trickling down to the generations that’ll inevitably replace them. The piece, so eloquently authored by Hanna Rosin, went into great and grave detail, limelighting that Palo Alto and Mountain View have been home to not one, but two, suicide clusters among teens at two of the nation’s best high schools, whose parents are some of the most affluent and educated people in the country. The cause, the proverbial stem to it all? The aforementioned, relentless hustle and obsession with success, be it financial, academic or otherwise, projected onto these teens and tweens. It’s helicopter in-home parenting and classroom teaching — from the stratosphere.

To, truly, introduce back in The Valley, we have to let ego’s die, let empathy and vulnerability become synonymous with bravery and well-being. To close the laptop, look up at the sky, and shout, in or out of your mind, I’m enough. When we take our last breaths, it’s not the unfinished spreadsheets that will flash before our eyes, but the richness of the relationships we’ve created. Fuck the work-life balance trend; chart a rhythm for yourself instead, one that ebbs and flows between time spent with loved ones and hours committed to a steadfast vocation.

Silicon Valley, it’s time to take a few steps back and re-evaluate, for sanity’s sake. The mental well-being of the generations of today and tomorrow, truly, depend on doing so.

SF transplant, coffee shop frequent; tiny living enthusiast. iPhone hasn’t been off silent mode in nine or so years. Editor of The Bold Italic.

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