In Australia, they have a national day called R U Ok. And one of my Australian coworkers used that as an opportunity to reach out to the rest of the company. We all thanked him. Mental health is a problem in the field of computer security, and IT as a whole, and we rarely talk about it. It’s time that we start. Let’s take the taboo out of mental health and infosec.
Why computer security is hard on mental health
It shouldn’t be a surprise that computer security is hard on a person’s mental health. It is a very high pressure, high stakes environment. Most of us are aware on some level that if we mess up, it can cost our employer over $3 million. That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone who isn’t a manager and doesn’t get manager pay and perks.
What’s worse, our tools aren’t always right. In some cases the tools themselves are flawed. In some cases, they weren’t deployed by someone who knew what they were doing. And they are almost always limited by the poor infrastructure that they rely on. 7 or 8 years ago, I actually sought out professional help, and I confused a therapist when I asked how you deal with tools that gaslight you constantly. He had no answers, so I found another therapist.
And it doesn’t help that frankly, an awful lot of computer security professionals are very terrible co-workers who treat one another very badly. We conduct psyops on each other telling each other that we’re improving security, while ignoring the unintended consequences of those actions.
Mental health and me
It’s not something I talk about frequently, but I have had struggles in this area off and on my entire adult life. The roots of it probably go back further than that. I was bullied without mercy starting at about age 10. Moving brought some relief, but some degree of bullying continued until my junior year of high school, and the main reason it ended was someone well versed in judo befriended me, told the bullies to cut it out, and they were afraid enough of him that they did.
My first sought out and received counseling at about age 20. And for the last several years, I’ve been seeing a counselor on a regular basis. I see it as preventative maintenance, frankly. Given the stakes of my job, it’s a good idea for me to be talking with a professional once a month to make sure my thinking is in the right place. Usually it is. And when it isn’t, we find the problem quickly and we make adjustments before a situation gets out of hand. Or at least my contribution to that situation. Sometimes there are things beyond my control. That’s one important thing I’ve learned.
You’re not broken
Something else I’ve learned, at great difficulty and expense, is that I’m not broken. And if you have experiences similar to mine, you’re not broken either. The American culture that tells you you’re broken is what’s broken.
I’m sure you’ve heard people tell you that you would be fine if you took better care of yourself, or if you learned to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, or some other self-righteous horse s***. I’m glad they’re in the 80% that doesn’t struggle with any of this, but when they talk to the rest of us, they need to shut the hell up.
The root of this comes from the Puritans. It’s important to know who the Puritans were. They were religious extremists who got kicked out of England because they weren’t interested in learning how to coexist with anybody else. They sailed west and landed in cold and miserable Massachusetts where they theoretically couldn’t hurt anyone else. There were people already there that they did hurt, but that’s another story.
The book The Puritans claimed to believe had a story where some other religious extremists asked Jesus which parents sins were responsible for a man being blind. Jesus said neither. The Puritans explained away the story by taking it and other things out of context. According to their miserable contributions to our culture, anything that’s wrong with you is a result of something you did. Or your parents did. And they absolve themselves of any responsibility. It’s a form of prejudice.
Modern extremists apply it to mental health, but they apply it to any other illness as well. It fits in nicely with Ayn Rand’s religion of selfishness where you absolve responsibility for anyone else and just do what feels good. It gives them an excuse to rage at the cost of health insurance. But eventually they will need it too, and perhaps if they were less selfish, society would be healthier and have fewer problems and have to spend less solving them.
You’re not the problem. Their childishness is a problem. So is their ignorance. But don’t let their problem make your problem worse.
Tips for dealing with it
If I haven’t offended you and you’re still reading, thank you. There are any number of ways to deal with the problem. Not everything that works for one person works for everyone else. You may need to keep trying, and that’s okay. Don’t get discouraged.
Professional help is taboo, but essential. This could involve medication, counseling, or a combination of both. It depends on the nature of the problem. If you don’t address the root cause, the treatment won’t be as effective as it could be. The first professional you get help from may or may not be able to find and fix the issue. It happens sometimes. Keep looking.
In my case, the person who helped me the most was a completely different religion from me. Overtly Christian counselors have not been much help to me over the years. It is okay to get help from a professional who was not the same religion as you. They still want to help you. In my case, having a very Jewish counselor look me and the eye and say, “You’re awfully judgmental,” was what I needed to hear at that moment in time. And when I’m looking at a situation at work, there are times when I remember those words, and it changes what I’m about to say from something unhelpful to something that is helpful.
Taking care of yourself
Taking care of yourself isn’t going to solve everything, but it is essential for keeping things from getting worse. And I don’t just mean eating better and exercising more. Those things do help, but I also mean giving your mind a break. I frequently tell my teammates they need at least one non-technical hobby. Doesn’t matter what that hobby is. Just something that they enjoy and that uses a different part of the brain. There will be times you don’t want to. Even 15 minutes a day helps. You would be amazed what 15 minutes a day for 365 days accomplishes.
Having a pet helps. Your pet will break your heart when they die, but will provide you with years of unconditional love before it happens. And that will help you to live longer.
And when a situation is untenable, it is okay to get out. Some workplaces are abusive. It’s been said people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Fast food workers making 7.25 an hour are figuring this out. That’s why there’s a shortage of them. There’s a shortage of information security professionals as well. Don’t let a toxic boss take you for granted.
Something else I’ve learned from a counselor the hard way is that we teach other people how to treat us. When being fair to others, make sure to be fair to yourself as well.
A lesson from baseball
Almost every blog post I write for my employer these days has some example from baseball. One seems appropriate here. A baseball season lasts 162 games. It is a very long grind, and most players sustain at least one injury getting through it. There are times when a team needs a certain player in order to win a game, and that player isn’t available. They may be injured, or at too greater risk of sustaining injury to play in that game. A good manager mixes and matches players to try to get around that situation. Sometimes it means not winning a particular game.
Sometimes it looks selfish. But a player is no good to a team on the disabled list and out for the season. It’s better to lose one game than to be unavailable for 80 games.
Your career is a long grind. It is okay to do something that recharges you. There are days when you need to work a little bit late, or put a little bit of work in on a weekend. It doesn’t mean you have to do it every time. And on the days you don’t, there’s no reason to feel guilty for it. If you give your mind a break, you’ll probably do a better job anyway.
If you’ll allow another sports analogy, be like Terry Fox. Terry Fox is a national hero in Canada, because he attempted to run a marathon a day across Canada to raise money for cancer research. On an artificial leg. He died of cancer before he could reach the goal. But the reason he got as far as he did was because he knew how to pace himself. What we do isn’t a life or death situation like what Terry Fox was up against. Don’t die for what you believe in. Live for it, and pace yourself like Terry Fox. It’s what he would want.