Mental Health in the Games Industry

UPDATE: I have created a Slack group as a result of this post — you can find information here https://medium.com/@callumunderwood/the-mental-health-in-games-slack-1763bbb039f

I wrote a tweet storm shortly before GDC where I lamented at the lack of mentors available to me, a problem compounded by my position in the industry. My goal was two-fold: I selfishly didn’t want to feel alone, and I wanted to let other people know what I was going through so that maybe they didn’t feel as alone. I pushed the tweet button before I read the whole thing through, and before I could really think about what I was doing. This post is hopefully a way to continue to achieve both goals.

My name is Callum Underwood and I am in Developer Relations @ Oculus, among other things. I hope you’ll forgive the somewhat rambling nature of this post, because what I am not is a writer. But I’m going to try my best. This is also a post that is almost all about me, rather than the state of the industry in general. This is because mental health is a very personal matter — and I hope by being open about it, people will realise that a whole bunch of people in games are feeling the same way. Having that empathy and understanding of each other is going to become more and more important as time goes on.

I am prone to suffering from a mixture of depression and anxiety, and have for most of my life. The anxiety is a fairly recent thing, coming forward in early 2015. Generally this situation waxes and wanes with no real discernible pattern, and I’m off and on anti-depressants. Trying to manage these conditions when they’re not connected to events in my life or work is stressful. Sometimes things in my life are fine and my anxiety barges in for no reason. Sometimes things in my life are hard to deal with but my mental health issues are quiet.

This isn’t related to the industry I’m in. If anything, it would probably be worse if I worked outside of this space. I want to make that clear — being in games does not make me depressed. I never want to have what I call a “real job.”

With that said, this industry, and the people in it, have a vulnerability and openness that for myself is likely a catalyst to naval-gazing and introversion. Because lots of people are open about their feelings, and you are exposed to so many different points of view and ways of life, it is common sense to think that the way you view yourself might be affected by that, and you may find yourself discovering things about yourself that perhaps may simply be buried otherwise. I think this is OK — I am glad I am often surrounded by people that I feel on a deep level I can relate to. That is very important in life and I think we should encourage it. This IS our safe space, and that is amazing. Having a job where the creativity and passion of others causes you to think about your own feelings is a privilege.

However, and this is the crux of this post, I also feel incredibly isolated. Even though I see people and friends online talking about similar things. Even though people I see at events are going through the same thing. Even though I can text 5–10–15 people and know I will get a reply and know that they are likely to be able to relate, I STILL feel like it’s just me.

The reason? Who knows. But my theory is that guilt is tied up in there somehow. I am in a good place in my career on paper, so why do I have these feelings of not doing the right thing or of being alone? Because that’s what depression is. Your brain is a bit of hacked together hardware running firmware that barely seems to designed for it. Your brain may tell you that you’re unhappy while also telling you that you shouldn’t feel that way because things seem fine. But you should never (and I shouldn’t) feel guilty for having these emotions, which is the sort of advice people with these conditions know is true, often tells others or write down, but remains very hard believe when it comes to your own life.

It’s hard to tell ourselves these things but maybe it’s helpful if you hear it from me, and that’s great, but a part of the reason for this post is I know it’s going to be more helpful to me if I hear it from you. So maybe we both have to tell each other these things to work through them.

We all wear masks — some of us more than others. Someone I would class as a friend sat in a meeting with me this week. We chatted about business opportunities and planned for the future. We could just have easily been sat trying to figure out why we sometimes feel miserable, and how we can help each other, but it wasn’t the time or the place, so we put our #business masks on and got down to it. That’s life, and it’s something we had to do. It’s also a strong skill, and not something that everyone can do. If you can — good for you! If you can’t… maybe that’s better? Who knows. But I have a feeling there is a lot of desperation hiding under the surface of a lot of the conversations at places like GDC.

I do have a call to action here, I just wanted to give you some context for where I am coming from. I think we as an industry can be better about those of us who feel doubt, isolation, depression, anxiety … the list goes on. This is selfish — I want a place where I can discuss what’s going on in my life without needing to have the mask on. Maybe this is an invite only slack/forum/Discord. Maybe it’s an email list. I’m really not sure — if you have ideas, please let me know, or if you want to be included in whatever it ends up being, you can email me on callum.underwood@gmail.com (hushmail is good for anonymity if you wish). Perhaps this already exists and I don’t know about it — in which case please let me know! I don’t want to reinvent the wheel if there’s a perfectly good one rolling around somewhere I can’t see it.

I am part of many online groups, and that is healthy, but I feel the need to have somewhere that I won’t be judged for over sharing.

It goes without saying that these are personal thoughts and feelings and not related to my day job. I love this industry so very much, I feel that it’s not a real job in that even when I’m busy and making progress it feels more like an adventure than work, and I want it to stay that way. But I am hurting, sometimes, and I see other people hurting, and I want to find a way for us to help. I want to be able to drop the business talk sometimes and ask the other person if they’re OK. I want other people to ask me the same thing from time to time.

If the group thing doesn’t work out, and even if it does, I want to put myself out there as someone people can talk to. I’m young, inexperienced, and stupid, but if you need a mentor, I am here, and I would encourage others to step up and do the same, if you can.

I want to help you, because I feel like I need help. Let’s get started.