Content warning: This article covers suicide in the cybersecurity community, which may be distressing to some readers. If you or someone you know is struggling, please seek help from a mental health professional or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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Unspoken Grief: Suicide Deaths Among Cyber Professionals Raise Concerns

Source: Dall-E 2-illustration-about-mental-health
Source: Dall-E 2-illustration-about-mental-health

Behind screens protecting our world and companies, a human may be struggling. The unexpected death of a security leader, mentor and entrepreneur in April 2022 resurfaced a troubling issue in the security community: suicide.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been several suicide deaths in the cybersecurity industry in recent years. However, suicide as a cause of death is often kept private by families. And out of respect for those left behind, cyber professionals typically avoid sharing their names, meaning that perhaps the number of suicide fatalities could be more significant than publically known.

The issue of suicide needs to be discussed, according to security professionals. Amanda Berlin, chief executive of Mental Health Hackers, a non-profit that works to remove the stigma of mental wellness challenges for security professionals, told me that twelve people she personally knew had died by suicide.

“We are behind computer screens for 12 hours or more, often without human interaction. Social isolation can cause depression, and you think you are the only one dealing with certain issues,” she told me in 2020 for WSJ Pro, The Wall Street Journal.

Others in the industry, such as security researcher Jay Radcliffe have spoken out about the issue of suicide. “Several people in the community have taken their own lives,” he told Axios in 2018. “It’s a sad thing and something I feel responsible for talking about.”

Suicide in cybersecurity, particularly in the hacking community, is not new. There have been at least six suicides reported publically in the news, including the death by suicide of cryptographer and security researcher Len Sassaman in 2011, as well as of computer security expert James Dolan in 2018.

But these cases are likely just the tip of the iceberg.

To some in the security community, suicide deaths are an issue they wish was addressed, said one cybersecurity professional who has been in the industry for over a decade and asked not to be named. Many security professionals declined to speak on the record about suicide deaths, with some calling the topic a sensitive issue.

Meanwhile, the cybersecurity industry is well known for its job-related stressors, including people working long hours, experiencing high-stress levels, and running on the maximum bandwidth, especially when handling security incidents that can drag on for months.

Several studies have shown that stress and burnout are also common in the cybersecurity industry. According to a survey from the U.K. domain name registry Nominet, 88% of chief information security officers said they were “moderately or tremendously stressed.” Of those surveyed, 48% reported that stress levels affected their mental health.

Despite the suicide cases and anecdotal evidence of job-related stressors, it’s unclear why security professionals are ending their lives and what the driving factors are. However, the traumatic grief felt by those who lost a loved one to suicide is severe and long-lasting. Individuals who lost a loved one to suicide are at greater risk for experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide themselves.

As one cybersecurity professional said, “[suicide] is a real problem; it seems like someone we know dies every few years. It’s always kind of a surprise and kind of not.”

As the cybersecurity industry continues to grapple with burnout, the impact of job-related stressors, plus the current challenging economic uncertainty, it is crucial to have safe conversations about suicide to help prevent further tragedies.

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