Mental Health Treatment in the Tech Field

Oh happy day, I’ve found a new dataset!

“Here you are sir, some piping fresh data for you, straight from the factory!”

I have seen the Mental Health in Tech survey pop up a few times, but before now I’ve never had the desire to dive into the data myself.  For one thing, the set up of the data is a little difficult for the kinds of data analyses I get going for. Not to get too into the basic statistics of NOIR data (nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio), but basically there are some types of responses that you can more easily do math with, and this survey doesn’t really have this kind of data.

Unlike some other datasets…

The purpose of this survey is mostly to get at the attitudes towards mental illness and mental health treatment among tech workers and within tech companies. Some of it I take as good news: 47% say their employers offer mental health benefits, most respondents felt OK about talking about mental health concerns with their supervisors, and 91% had never seen any negative consequences from workers being open about mental health issues. Other parts I’m not too happy about: 71% said that their employer has never discussed mental health as part of wellness campaigns, and there are a lot of “I don’t know” responses to important things like how the employer deals with mental illness, protects anonymity, and resources available.

Those “I don’t know” responses can be a real problem. From my work with first responders, particularly police departments, one of the most common complaints from chiefs and captains is that “We have all these great programs, the city throws all this money at us to set up things like peer support teams, crisis hotlines, gym access, what have you, but nobody uses them!” A lot of times, what I would do with these departments is help them with some promotional material – pamphlets, posters, announcements, as well as where to put them. It’s sad to think that there are people who might need help and aren’t getting it because of a marketing issue.

Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura
The Times Square billboard didn’t pan out

Overall, I don’t take too much from these numbers by themselves. I’d want to know a) how these compare to other industries like healthcare or retail, and b) how they compare to other types of conditions, like chronic physical ailments or discrimination based on minority status. My sense is that tech wouldn’t do too well there: the industry is a notorious meatgrinder, so I would think that stress and burnout would be high. Back in 1983, it looked like the stress level was pretty much the same as in other industries. These days it looks like a very different story.

Treatment Utilization in Tech

One thing I did find particularly interesting is the questions about individual mental health issues. Three questions in particular:

  1. Do you currently have a mental health disorder?
  2. Have you been diagnosed with a mental health condition by a medical professional?
  3. Have you ever sought treatment for a mental health issue from a mental health professional?
  4. Have you had a mental health disorder in the past?

I was really struck by this, because my first thought was “why are they asking the same question in so many different ways?”

Image result for confused
“Have you never been not having mental health issues by a disordered professional ever?”

Obviously, while there’s likely to be a ton of overlap between these questions, they aren’t exactly the same. I started to get curious about the non-overlap as well. How many people have a disorder that has never been officially diagnosed or treated? How many people are getting treatment without a diagnosis or even a disorder? And how many people are getting diagnosed but not treated? This looks like a job for a needlessly complicated visualization. I used the VennDiagram package in R and came up with this cautionary tale of misleading visualizations:

If you look at the circles and not the numbers, it looks like we’ve got a bunch of people who have been diagnosed and never treated, and a bunch of people who are currently in treatment with a history of mental illness, but never any treatment or diagnosis. It also looks like I did that thing in MS Paint where you make a bunch of random lines and filled them in with the filler tool, but I digress.

The truth is the size of these areas are not dynamic, which is why that dark area in the middle is by far the largest at 449, but still one of the smaller areas of the diagram. Here is a more accurate, if needlessly interactive, visualization:

That overlapped chunk in the middle is by far the biggest part of the circle, so most people with a mental illness are being diagnosed and treated by a professional. Beyond that, there’s a big blue-green area at the bottom where people are getting diagnosed and treated, but don’t have a current disorder, so those are the people who have recovered.

There are still some interesting non-overlaps. 6 people have been diagnosed by a professional but never been treated. 8 people are self-diagnosed, which is a little problematic from a treatment perspective. 21 people got better all on their own, and good for them. What shocks me a little bit is that big light blue area in the bottom left – the people who are getting (or have sought) treatment for a mental illness without ever having had a mental illness. 100 people are getting mental health treatment… just for fun?


I have a few hypotheses for this:

  1. Poorly worded survey questions. I noticed that they ask if people have been treated for a “mental health issue,” versus having had a “mental health disorder,” versus having been diagnosed with a “mental health condition.” Probably there are a few people who were comfortable enough saying they had some issue, like divorce, or bereavement, or even something like anxiety, but not a “condition” or a “disorder.”
  2. They didn’t know they were being diagnosed. Terms like diagnosis and disorder have a scary connotation, and they’ve been a little misused. Probably some people were thinking “Well yeah I talked to someone about my anxiety, but I don’t have a disorder, I’m not crazy.” but really, if something is bothering you badly enough that you need treatment, that’s generally enough to say that it’s disordered. Most insurance companies won’t pay for treatment if there isn’t some kind of mental health diagnosis, because they don’t want to shell out for a treatment for someone who doesn’t need it. So along with some of the scarier, more famous diagnoses like Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Depression, etc. there are a lot of more low key diagnoses like Adjustment Disorder, which is basically to say “this guy just went through some stressful event, like a move or a divorce or something, and he’s having trouble adjusting to it.”
  3. Maybe they were just getting therapy for fun. Therapy can have numerous benefits for people who aren’t dealing with any kind of issue. Maybe you’re doing well, but you think you could be doing even better! Maybe you just want to learn a little bit about yourself. Maybe you want to cope ahead and try to improve your resilience before you need to. Make hay while the sun shines! Just don’t expect insurance to pay for it.
Image result for laughing businessman
“Then he said he wanted to find himself!”

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