For this post I am going to speak about something a bit more serious as I got a chance to speak to Amanda Berlin who is the Chief Executive Officer of ‘Mental Health Hackers’.
So, who are mental health hackers?
“It is the mission, duty, and purpose of Mental Health Hackers to educate the public, particularly information security professionals, about the unique mental health risks and problems faced by information security professionals and other heavy users of technology, and how to reduce those risks and cope with those problems; to provide support services to them and other heavy users of technology who suffer from mental health issues related to heavy use of technology, such as anxiety, depression, social isolation, and eating disorders.”
Mental health is a serious issue and I remember as a 43 year old a time when it wasn’t spoken about as much and to be totally honest it is still not spoken about enough!
Below stats from https://mentalhealthfoundation.org/mental-health-statistics-2021/
High Level Mental Health Statistics
1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness
Almost 1 in 25 adults live with a serious mental illness
50% of chronic mental illness start before 14 years of age
75% of chronic mental illness start by age 24
Just over 10 million people over the age of 18 have more than 1 addiction or mental health disorder
COVID-19 and Mental Health Statistics
In current terms, assessing responses to the global COVID-19 pandemic, surveys conducted in the first 3 months by Cohen Veterans Network revealed the following:
- 73% (or nearly 3 in 4) healthcare providers feel their families life is at risk because of their job during the pandemic
- 58% (almost 6 in 10) frontline healthcare providers in NY city are concerned for their own mental health
- 29% (almost 3 in 10) frontline healthcare providers in NY city feel scared
- 7 in 10 Americans expressed worry over their health because of COVID-19
- 58% believe social distancing is a reason to be concerned about their mental health
- 64% of people indicated feeling anxious in general because of the pandemic
- Only 14% of families have taken advantage of mental health care because of issues related to the pandemic
- Between the military and their families, over 50% have looked for mental health care
It is a cause close to my heart (nothing I speak about) so when I saw them I had to get them on the site for some more visibility and even if it helps one person then it will be worth it.
If you want to help out you can volunteer to help at conventions and events as well as supporting financially though patreon, paypal or a corporate sponsor. If you don’t have much spare time or money just sharing their posts and making more people would do.
Amanda Berlin is a Lead Incident Detection Engineer and former Sr. Security Architect at Blumira. After beginning to open up about her own mental health struggles, an overwhelming amount of positive feedback encouraged her to continue to lead initiatives to help others struggling to see they aren’t alone and is also Mental Health First Aid certified.
Thank you so much for speaking to me about ‘Mental Health Hackers’, so I suppose the first question is where did this organisation come about from, how did it all start?
Thank you so much for the interview Alex! It actually didn’t necessarily start on purpose but was more of an escalation of different things that lead to it all. I actually started talking about my own mental health struggles on personal social media like Facebook and twitter and in small groups about 5 years ago or so. I had some major changes in my life and was finally in therapy and didn’t want to remain quiet about why. I had so many people that were amazed that of all people, I had depression and anxiety. I seemed like such a happy and fun person all of the time! Around that same time I was asked to give my first keynote speech ever at Bsides Nashville. I definitely wanted something “big picture” that everyone could relate to. That’s when it kind of clicked as a subject I should talk about openly in public. My first keynote was titled “Hackers, Hugs, & Drugs: Mental Health in Infosec” and I went over some of my personal struggles, like when I first realized I had a real problem. I also covered some of the more common mental health issues and their symptoms, some medical research reading I did, coping strategies, how to help others in your life, and statistics surrounding mental health. One of the more interesting studies I found was the Savanna-IQ Interaction hypothesis. Which covered the correlation between higher IQs and higher depression rates and higher rates of self medication.
During that first talk, some of my best friends, and my oldest son were in the audience. My son came down to me and said “wow mom, what a downer”. Which really yea, the talk itself is kind of depressing, but it’s also really eye opening and has seemed to resonate with way more people than I ever imagined. I hadn’t thought I’d be doing what I’m doing today, but it kind of just set things in motion. I’ve given that same talk at this point over a dozen times so far, and each time it touches more people I think it breaks down the stigma a little more. No matter how many times I give it, it’s never easier to talk about. More than ever people are having an open dialogue about their own struggles, or struggles of friends and family. That’s exactly what we need. More open communication will end up helping us all.
So in 2018 there was just a small idea I had about offering a mental health workshop. Because honestly, after giving the previous talk over a dozen times so far I thought there was enough interest to help more than just the few people that come and watch me speak. So I was throwing around in my head something like a quiet chill room where people could come and hang out to get away from the noise and crowds. I know that I tend to have anxiety panic attacks at conferences, mostly because I’ll be working from home for weeks on end, really only talking to a few people. And then BAM I’m surrounded by people for a few days 24/7 and it can get super overwhelming.
So why not combine a quiet space with what I was trying to get across in that first talk?! So I talked to a couple people and decided to put in a workshop CFP for Derbycon in Louisville, Ky and WOO it got accepted. After talking to some of the organizers about what ideas I had, they gave me two options. Hook me up with some official sponsors, or try out a crowdfunding thing. So I figured, sure let’s see what we can raise in the community, that should also give me a good idea of what kind of reception and interest there is as well.
We were able to raise over $7,000! My initial goal was 3,000 . So we blew past that right away with a few donations. So I upped the goal and started coming up with even better ideas on what to do with the money.
I wanted there to be information given in some form in the village. I split up all of the ideas that the volunteers had come up with between discussion groups and presentations. The presentations were just like the type of presentation you’d get at a normal conference, where the discussion groups were more of a round table. The discussion leaders who volunteered would pose questions, offer up information, and share stories throughout the group. We also had an amazing volunteer offer her services as a yoga instructor and we bought and handed out free yoga mats throughout the weekend. Saturday we had a full day of chair massages from 4 professional therapists! Honestly that is where 1/2 of the money went. Massages can be expensive, especially when you pay for 4 people and an entire day.
After that initial idea took place in 2018 I had other conference organizers wanting me to run one at their conference, and people asking how they could donate. That’s when I decided to just go for it and make it a real thing and started mental health hackers. Derbycon8 was the beginning of October 2018, by Nov 14th we began operating as a non-profit with business license in the state of Ohio and on April 11th we obtained our 501(c)(3) from IRS
Our mission and goal is just to have hackers helping hackers. And we like to just think of it like the AA of mental health.
Is there any plans for MHH to grow or has this growth and awareness all been very natural?
Most of it has been very natural, we’re all 100% volunteer based and of course and limited by our day jobs, family lives, and own mental health. It’s grown more than I ever would have thought was possible. With the growing amount of interest in MHH villages from information security conferences as well as other technology related conferences it requires more than just a few board members to travel and facilitate them. The ambassador program outlines policies and procedures for other volunteers to be an in person representative at a subset of these conferences and events. Now with our ambassadors we can run a total of 6 villages at a time if needed, and we spend way less money and time on travel expenses as well.
The group is something I would love dearly to get involved in help in any way I can, will definitely see about becoming a sponsor but how can other people get involved and help out?
We’re always looking for volunteers to help out in one way or another! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. With Covid and less in person events currently we’re trying to find more activities and services to offer to help as well.
Not to pry in any way but what kind of things does the group deal with outside of the conventions and talks?
Well due to Covid we actually were able to explore this more! We’ve done a Hackers Who Paint session, where we had sponsors help send painting kits to about 40 different people across the world, and held an online painting class open for anyone to attend. We also have done several rounds of what we call Hacker Feel Good boxes, where you can nominate a friend or co-worker who may have just had a rough day or difficult time, maybe someone that just needs a little random pick-me-up in life. We will reach out and contact them, let them know someone anonymous is thinking of them and we would like to send them a package if they are comfortable sharing their address with us. Everything is hand picked, packed, and shipped by both myself and my CFO Megan Roddie. Their information goes nowhere other than our private DM where we reached them, and on the envelope at the post office. We’re also looking into providing other services too so stay tuned 😀
How have you seen things change in regards to Covid and lockdown with many working from home, furlough and even worse with some getting paid off?
Definitely. Some things for the better, some things for the worse. There was no shortage of articles about the stress and depression brought on by a sudden change of everyone’s lifestyle. We even had a talk given remotely by one of our volunteers that is a Dr. of Psychology on the grief process, and how you can go through the grief of not just people in your lives, but things like your weekly bowling night. Pretty much everyone was almost immediately tired of constant zoom meetings, making what we did at conferences pretty much worthless. You aren’t going to help anyone in a virtual conference, escape the noise and business by just putting them in another Zoom room with a bunch of people they don’t know.
Conversely I’ve heard and seen a large number of companies embrace mental health treatment in their culture and used the shift to work from home to implement a healthier overall attitude to all of it. More companies offering mental health days, checking in on their employee’s wellness, and starting complete programs to solidify the fact that they know that mental health is important to everyone no matter if they are struggling or not.
With regards to the organisation, has there been anything yet that you would like to do or implement that you haven’t managed for any reason?
So many things! Most come down to time and money. Everyone on the board has a full time job and a family, some of us have other side projects even in addition to that. I want us to start a blog surrounding the concept that peer support works and we’d love to partner with some of the therapy apps or services to offer them at a discounted rate. There’s just not enough hours in the day unfortunately.
I adore the logo with the cat in the hoody, who designed it?
Thank you!! It was actually a good friend of our CFO, you can find her on twitter at https://twitter.com/kaylandesign
What is next for the group at the end of 2021 and moving into 2022?
Time will only tell. We made it back to three conferences before, but now that Delta variant has started to hit we’ve backed off on in person events again. We do have another Hackers Who Paint night scheduled coming up soon, as well as other events in the works 🙂
MHH Website = https://www.mentalhealthhackers.org/
MHH Facebook = https://www.facebook.com/HackersHealth/
MHH Twitter = https://twitter.com/HackersHealth
MHH LinkedIn = https://www.linkedin.com/company/mental-health-hackers/
Amanda Twitter = https://twitter.com/infosystir