Below are my notes and highlights from this session at Write The Docs Europe 2016 in Prague. This is part of a series I wrote during the conference. This is not meant to be transcriptions and may have missed points made during they talk. They solely reflect my interpretations of the talk.

Healthy Minds in a Healthy Community

by Erik Romijn

None of us are alone

Everyone he meets seems to have their entire lives together and everything is perfect. But, upon really getting to know them he often discovers that many of them have serious challenges in their lives, including depression, OCDC, and self hurting issues. Therefore no matter how successful or creative someone seems, they may be spending tremendous energy just get to through the day.

1 in 4 people experience mental illness in their life time

25% might seem like a small percentage, but consider that 70% of office workers regularly experience physical symptoms due to stress. This may not be a mental illness, however it is harmful in the long term.

Our cultures encourage us to hide these feelings. Therefore we know that there are people in this room that are struggling with things. And many of the people in this room know exactly what you are going through.

At DjangoCon 2015 attendees had the opportunity to speak to a counselor for 25 minutes, for free, and completely anonymously. 1 in 10 attendees used this service. Feedback from users included:

  • It is a relief to say these things to someone and have acknowledgment of the problem.
  • I found it useful and relaxed. I don’t feel like I am not crazy or alone. This is normal.

By being considerate, empathetic, accepting and understanding by helping people not feel alone we can help. We don’t have to be trained mental health professionals.

Since we are not alone or the only ones struggling what can we do:

Help Yourself

Many people enjoy these kinds of communities and feel great when contributing to something bigger than themselves. This desire to contribute causes us to take on more or to become the “rockstar” who does everything. This is where the problem starts as this participation should have a positive impact not just on our peers, the community and the world, but it should also have a positive impact on ourselves. Putting yourself first isn’t bad. If people are depending on you, you must be in a good place to be able to fulfill these dependencies. Take care of yourself first, or your can’t help others. It is the same reason that, on an airplane, you must put on your oxygen mask first, before helping others.

It is OK to say no (and even OK to say no more)

Why is this so hard? Because many people are worried about a negative response or believe this indicate they have failed. But, saying ‘no’ is required if we are going to have sustainability and not drop the ball on our commitments.

Erik illustrated this point with a personal anecdote involving him and a co-presenter who got too busy to do everything successfully.

Sustainability is critical for open source and open “sourcerers”.

Suffering through our own work helps no one. Stepping down is always feared, but in general, it is well received and understood. When a negative reaction occurs it is generally indicative of that person having similar fears. Stepping down also creates space for someone to step in and step up. It is like not wanting to eat the cookie you picked up from the tray, but instead of putting it back, you lick it so that no one else will want it either.

Another anecdote, this time about a conference party he was trying to get organized on top of all of his other responsibilities. He was worried that he would be burdening his co-organizers if he dropped out. But he was licking the cookie because he was both making sure that the party wasn’t getting planned and preventing someone else from doing it.

Don’t lick the cookie.

Asking for help is not the same as failing

This talk is the direct result of Erik asking Mikey Ariel for help turning the incoherent initial ramblings that formed the genesis of the talk and into something worthwhile.

The real failure is if your goals never happen. Getting help makes goals achievable when they are bigger than you.

Ignoring your issues and sticking your head in the sand as the mythical ostrich does, builds up over time and creates greater problems. It may not cause mental illness, but it can destroy your life. As this progresses the idea of asking for help continues to be more “unrealistic”. This not asking for help can even convince you that no one wants to help. No one is telepathic so no one actually knows what you need.

Asking for help may make you feel like people may judge or ridicule you. This is incredibly rare and it hasn’t happened in this kind of community. If this does happen, it doesn’t mean that you are wrong to ask. It means the other person is behaving in an inappropriate manner and is toxic and not your friend.

Even with all of this knowledge, Erik still finds asking for help to be challenging. But, communities like this are a great place to practice this.

How Communities Can Help

In general any efforts to help a specific population feel more welcome, helps the population overall.

Have a communication channel available in advance to help people organize their visit and to help those who are coming alone connect.

Small signs like “Yay! you made it” help a lot. Offer quiet rooms for people to wind down. Also, acknowledge issues by doing things like helping people who may be struggling with things like alcoholism find recovery meetings. It isn’t that this information is inaccessible. Instead it demonstrates that the community understands this happens and cares.

To help with over commitment the Django community has changed service terms to 6 months with a required opt-in for continuation. This lack of a need to opt-out has made leaving easier.

Django is also looking at creating a well-being committee to help support the community as a whole. This will provide peer-support for members of the community, not long term care. The goal is to provide the ability to start a process. This can help, “pop the stack”, if you’re familiar with the data structure.

Another area where communities can help is by breaking down the inhibition we generally have to giving praise. This inhibition is oddly joined by a general willingness to pass along negative feedback.

To this end, they have created an open source platform for sending happiness packets. This service allows you to anonymously send gratitude to others and thank them for what they do. Visit