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"People don't talk about mental health because of the stigma, out of fear for their careers"

At Devcom last week, Raw Fury's Callum Underwood discussed his ambition to "normalise" mental health issues in the games industry

If one needed evidence of the growing awareness of mental health issues in the games industry, it could be found in the size of the crowd gathered around Raw Fury's Callum Underwood at Devcom last week.

Underwood was speaking at Respawn: Gathering of Game Developers, one of several events that comprised Devcom's inaugural year. Across two days of sessions, only PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds creator Brendan Greene convinced more people to stop and pay attention, and even then only by a whisker.

"I had no expectation that there would be more than ten people watching me," Underwood told the crowd, most of whom were sitting or standing around what proved to be a drastically inadequate supply of chairs. "Thank you for spending your half an hour listening to me talk about depression and shit."

"People like me, I feel, should be able to get onstage and really talk about what their problems are and how they deal with them"

Underwood joined Raw Fury in July, after more than three years working with VR developers at Oculus. Speaking at conferences has been a core part of his job for some time, he said, but talking about such an important issue is a new experience. And not just important, but deeply personal.

On a flight back to the UK after a week at GDC 2017, Underwood had an anxiety attack. He had suffered similar attacks before, but the proximity of this one to the best attended (and most exhausting) developer conference in the industry calendar got him thinking. "I thought that nobody talks about this stuff enough," he said, "and I also didn't know who to talk to about it."

The result was a blog post, Mental Health in the Games Industry, which resonated with enough people to indicate that these issues were both prevalent and rarely discussed. Underwood's blog post was one attempt to start a conversation, his talk at Respawn was another, and the size of the audience he attracted suggests that many have been seeking an opportunity to take part.

"People like me, I feel, should be able to get onstage and really talk about what their problems are and how they deal with them," he said. "I suffer from depression and anxiety. Depression is, for me, a kind of low-level, continuing, feeling generally shit all of the time thing. Anxiety is a peaks and troughs thing, where I have good days and bad days."

"It's just shit that happens to all of us, and it's honestly all of us"

One of the issues Underwood faced in speaking openly about these problems is a nagging sense of guilt at having them in the first place. "I'm a white, straight guy who has a good job. I've got a family. There's no circumstantial reason for me to be depressed. I'm not poor, I haven't been abused, and so on and so forth."

However real they might be to the individual, though, Underwood argued that it is important to recognise that those feelings of guilt are misplaced. Mental health issues can afflict anyone, he said, regardless of race or background or personal wealth.

"If you're depressed when generally everyone around you is happy and in the same circumstances, you don't have to feel like it's a bad thing - that's just normal. It's the same as being ill. If you don't feel guilty when you've got a cold, why should you feel guilty when you have a panic attack?

"It's shit that happens to all of us, and it's honestly all of us."

Underwood's previous employer, Facebook, provided "incredible" support when he needed it, but not everyone is so fortunate. This uncomfortable realisation is why Underwood has set normalising mental health issues in the games industry as his "number one goal," even if it ultimately harmed his career. Indeed, when he felt it was time to move on from Oculus, he was "super concerned" that the decision to speak publicly about his experiences would prompt other companies to, "go for the safe guy, who doesn't talk about this thing."

With Raw Fury, at least, that concern was obliterated in a single meeting with Jonas Antonsson, the CEO, in which Underwood was entirely frank about his situation. "Jonas said, 'No problem. We can share medication.' I was like, 'Fuck, that's amazing'.

"If you don't feel guilty when you've got a cold, why should you feel guilty when you have a panic attack?"

"People don't talk about mental health because of the stigma, out of fear for their careers," Underwood continued. "What I learned is that, if I was going to be employed by a company that cared about that in a negative way, there's no way I'd want to work for that company anyway."

Underwood admitted that taking a hardline stance is "a luxury" more readily available to someone with his CV, but that only reinforces the need to raise awareness and promote acceptance - to improve the situation for everyone. Underwood is not alone in that respect; this year, Jagex partnered with the charity MIND in pursuit of the same goals, and Limit Theory's Josh Parnell gave a frank interview to that touched on his own struggle with mental health.

The games industry is one in which crunch and all of the pressure that brings is still commonplace, and one populated by those who may naturally be more susceptible to mental health issues. Companies of all types and sizes can and should be doing more, Underwood argued, before giving the crowd some examples of positive first steps.

Larger companies can start internal groups for employees to come together and talk freely about mental health. "You have it as a place where employees can discuss their day with each other, they can discuss what medication they're on, they can be open about things," he said. "At places like Google or Facebook or big companies this works extremely well, because out of 15,000 employees you might have 1,000 or so in the group. That works great."

Another possibility for larger companies are regular "brown bag sessions" focused on the same issues. "A brown bag session, for those of you who don't know, is a douche-bag Silicon Valley term for having lunch and talking to each other - they have to name these things," Underwood said. "But have one. Have one at your company.... You'll start to normalise the process of discussing this kind of thing."

These ideas can be implemented at companies with even a few dozen employees, but Underwood acknowledged that they "might not work so well" at a five-person developer. However, there are day-to-day changes that can help improve understanding at organisations of all sizes, which Underwood grouped under the phrase, "support your staff."

"If people have done something well, fucking tell them they did it well... Doing well is the normalised basis at a company now"

Employers should be able to recognise the signs that someone has issues with mental health, and be as flexible as possible in their responses. Employees should feel able to take time to go to an appointment, to take their medication at work, and to work from home occasionally. "This is all stuff I've done in jobs in the past, and it's all stuff I think we should expect from people in this industry," Underwood said. "This is all okay, and it's actually a real positive.

"I'd rather have someone who worked for me take a half day off, because they're not going to do anything productive anyway, and then catch up next week. Don't feel like you need to stick to the rules all the time. That's not the kind of industry that we are."

Underwood also urged the audience to assess the role that positive reinforcement plays in the workplace. Far too often in the games industry, he said, good performance is assumed to be a minimum requirement, and not something that merits praise or recognition.

"If people have done something well, fucking tell them they did it well... Doing well is the normalised basis at a company now. If you don't do well you get told off, and only if you do something that's out of this world you might get pulled into a room and be told, 'Good job.' I think that's pretty fucked up. Promote the idea that when people do good stuff, you tell them about it."

Of course, this is only the start, of both Underwood's personal journey to normalise mental health issues in the games industry, and what he hopes will be the industry's collective response to those efforts. The size of the attentive crowd that received him at Respawn is one sign that he's on the right track; the size of the community that has gathered around his Mental Health in Games Slack channel, which he set up after publishing his post-GDC blog post, is another.

"I didn't know what would happen with it. I thought that maybe five or ten of my friends might join; I think I have around 250 members right now," he said. "I don't check it every day, but when I want to talk there are always people online, going through the same stuff you do, in the same industry. We have people who are completely new to the industry, we have journalists, we have people who've been in the industry for 30 years.

"This stuff does help. If you feel able and you feel comfortable enough, just talk to people." is a media partner of Devcom. We attended the event with assistance from the organiser.

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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