The recent suicides of Jody Sherman, Aaron Swartz and Ilya Zhitomirskiy are tragic but all too familiar stories. Some might also recall the suicide of Eric Salvatierra, former VP at PayPal and CFO at Skype who stood in front of the Caltrain in Menlo Park. Or those of Kari Kairamo, ReiJane Huai, Qinggen Wang, and Glenn Mueller: all successful, high achieving members of the technology community that committed suicide under mounting pressure, while facing defeat or while struggling with a mental illness. Many speculate that the pressure of nasty lawsuits; running a struggling, hyped-up startup; the search for the next Zuckerberg or the thought of a public failure led to the recent suicides. Fingers have been pointed at ruthless bloggers, prosecutors, a cut-throat economy and a failing mental health system. Regardless of the reason, they all have one heartbreaking similarity: each could have been prevented.
The goal of this article is not to place blame but rather to provide enough information about suicide so that managers, co-workers, fathers, daughters and wives can recognize the warning signs of someone who is struggling and extend a hand. It is about holding each employee, team and manger accountable for assessing the well-being of their co-workers. It’s is about the power of knowledge and knowing how to act, before it is too late.
The Dark Side of the Boom
Suicide rates in the United States have steadily increased since the dotcom bust in 2000, reached the highest rate in 15 years and have currently surpassed traffic accidents as the leading cause of injury deaths. There have been record high rates of suicide from the Caltrain which runs through the heart of Silicon Valley as well as the Golden Gate Bridge. Silicon Valley also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, more children who are psychologically disturbed than in less affluent areas, no affordable housing for families making less than $50,000 per year and widespread drug and alcohol abuse. This dark side of Silicon Valley is indicative of a culture that is struggling.
The high rates of suicide and divorce suggests that it is not just the CEOs and VPs that are struggling. They are joined by the startup co-founders, aspiring entrepreneurs, engineers and IT technicians. This begs the question: What is different about this group of high-achieving individuals that makes them more prone to suicide, divorce or addiction? It could be that the mounting pressures to perform, widespread publicity brought on by blogs, society’s craving for the next new Tech Genius combined with the vulnerability, inexperience and naivety of a young entrepreneur is a recipe for disaster. It could also be that the Tech Stars of Silicon Valley work in a microcosm that values 120 hour work weeks, securing large rounds of funding and going IPO in 2 years and also in a larger society that stigmatizes mental illness. It may be that aspiring Zuckerbergs who spend more time with their laptop than their loved ones have stopped living in accordance to the values and goals that compel them to connect with life. Or, perhaps the thought of failing in the public spotlight, surrounded by stories of overnight success and a talented team that needs to be led to success is so terrifying that they would rather lose everything trying than give up.
The American Dream Gone Ballistic
The problems of Silicon Valley have been highlighted in the book “Down and Out in Silicon Valley” by psychologists Krantzler and Krantzler who have treated some of the technology industry’s elite. They state that Silicon Valley is “the American dream gone ballistic”: a place where money, power and instant gratification are the only things that matter in life. Where executives neglect family and friends to grow their empire, aspiring entrepreneurs are obsessed with instant fame and fortune and their dreams all too often end in desperation and despair. It’s a place where the once-promising entrepreneur is burned by ambition and left in psychological turmoil. This mental havoc permeates their work, marriage and family.
“Princeton Isn’t Good Enough; It Has to Be Harvard or Yale”
5 of the students who committed suicide in 2009 in Silicon Valley attended Gunn High School which has one of the highest average SAT scores for public schools in the US, ranked 4th in the nation in 2012 for STEM education and has 95% of their graduating class go on to attend college. The pressure of attending one of the top high schools in the country may be compounded by the pressure placed on them by high-achieving parents, teachers and peers who are also living and working in cut-throat Silicon Valley. One Palo Alto parent epitomizes this pressure with the comment, “Princeton isn’t good enough; it has to be Harvard or Yale.”
The recent suicides of these high school students may be indicative of a larger problem within Silicon Valley. That it is not just the pressure of the spotlight, the failed quest for fame or the insatiable thirst for fortune that drives the Silicon Valley elite to commit suicide. Rather, there may be less glamorous reasons for their fatal endings.
Causes of Suicide in Silicon Valley
The causes of suicide are complex and multifaceted. The entire truth behind each suicide is largely unknown by the individual committing the fatal act, the loved ones who mourn their loss and the researchers dedicated to understanding why. However, there are themes that stand out and below are a compilation of the main causes of suicide in Silicon Valley:
“The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort; with it a calm passage is to be made across many a bad night.” – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
Suicide is a final act that many hope will relieve their excruciating pressure, end their suffering and allow them to disappear into the night. Many suicide notes detail mounting stress and burdens at work, seemingly relentless performance expectations and the pressure that results from having unattainable, unrealistic or perfectionistic aspirations. It is this pressure that drives them to escape.
2. Undiagnosed or untreated mental illness
A common thread running through most of the high profile Silicon Valley suicides is that the entrepreneurs had a mental illness, stopped taking their medication or were never properly treated for it. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
3. The stigma of mental illness and a culture that values fortitude
“Hardly anyone had even a clue that Ilya was depressed, let alone suicidal. He must have felt so alone, so isolated. If he had reached out, maybe—maybe—he could have lived another day. But he didn’t.”- Personal friend, Mitch Altman, blogged after Zhitomirskiy’s death in November.
Many in Silicon Valley who struggle with mental health illness try to “push through” without the support of mental health professionals or loved ones. They may be too ashamed and think that by asking for help they will reveal a weakness, inadequacy or flaw. As Brad Feld, a Silicon Valley investor explains, “Many entrepreneurs don’t feel like they can talk openly about their depression, as they don’t want their investors, employees, or customers to know they are struggling with it.” This stigma has fatal consequences.
4. Perceived failure
All entrepreneurs experience failure. How they respond to failure can have an enormous impact on their life. After Ilya Zhitomirskiy’s death, entrepreneur Ben Huh blogged about contemplating suicide during a time when his former company was floundering, “Loneliness, darkness, hopelessness…those words don’t capture the feeling of the profound self-doubt that sets in after a failure.” Despair can be so debilitating that it “makes you question if you should even exist anymore. I spent a week in my room with the lights off…thinking of the best way to exit this failure. Death was a good option—and it got better by the day.” Failure is a powerful contributor to the decision to commit suicide.
Stress is often cited as a main cause for suicides. Stress in Silicon Valley can result from environmental factors (economic or technological uncertainties), organizational factors (conflicting roles, lack of participation in decision making, lack of opportunity for advancement) or individual factors (family issues, health concerns, economic problems, legal problems). All can contribute to an individual feeling overwhelmed, hopeless and helpless.
6. Loss of connection
Entrepreneurs who become engrossed in their work, lose a true connection with life and decrease vital communication with loved ones are at risk of not being truly grounded. Their fears become disproportional to reality, they fail to live in accordance with their values and when their company fails, so do they.
How to Prevent Suicide in the Workplace
Suicide is preventable. There are many actions that anyone in the workplace can take if they suspect someone on their team is struggling. When responsibility is diffused to each individual in the workplace, suicide prevention is more effective. By involving your team, communicating the importance of this issue and compelling them to act when they suspect a co-worker is struggling, you will cast a wide safety net that may catch those most in need. Below is information that will be helpful for this process.
1) Train your employees and managers to identify the warning signs of suicide:
- Suffering a loss or failure
- Intense emotional states (desperation, rage, pain, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, abandonment)
- Giving away possessions
- Dramatic changes in mood or behavior
- Marked decline in self-esteem
- Deterioration in work performance
- Disinterest in socializing, connecting with others or pleasurable activities
- Problems with sleeping, eating or personal hygiene
- Talking about suicide
- Saying “good-bye” through an email, note or in person
- Preoccupation with death or dying
- Substance abuse, “accidents”, rage explosions, self-destructive behavior and violent acts
2) Have a “if you see something, say something” policy – if one of your employees suspects that someone is at high risk for suicide, encourage them to tell the staff person in charge of addressing mental health concerns in the workplace
3) Encourage employees to seek treatment for any mental health concerns
4) Provide training, support and educational materials regarding safe handling of personal challenges and crises
5) Prevent burnout before it happens (link to burnout)
6) Promote personal well-being by encouraging your employees to:
- Reflect on personal values and priorities
- Live according to values
- Strive to achieve balance between personal and professional lives
- Enhance areas of work that are personally most meaningful
- Protect and nurture relationships
- Engage in hobbies
- Ensure adequate sleep, exercise, relaxation and nutrition
7) Develop and encourage a support network among employees
Improve the work environment:
- Reduce conflict
- Reduce role ambiguity
- Increase employee level of control
- Encourage participation in decision making processes
- Enrich job tasks
- Set realistic goals
- Increase communication
- Increase cooperation
9) Promote the idea that failure is necessary for success (link to failure to thrive)
Suicide in Silicon Valley is a tragic consequence of a series of complex factors. The combination of an untreated mental illness, pressure, perceived failure and a loss of connection can result in fatal consequences when experienced by a young professional with big dreams. However, they don’t have to be; all suicides are preventable. When armed with proper training, relevant knowledge and the courage to reach out to someone in need, everyone is capable of saving a life.
About the Author: Tiago Paiva is the CEO and Co-Founder of Talkdesk, a call center software for SMBs. Tiago is also interested in writing additional guest blog posts. Contact him at email@example.com if you are interested or you can follow him @Talkdesk