Ben Smith’s most recent New York Times media column told a jaw-dropping story: In February, a co-founder of the media company Ozy impersonated a YouTube executive on a call with potential investors. According to Smith, the conversation had originally been scheduled as a Zoom, arranged among Ozy, YouTube, and Goldman Sachs, which was looking to invest $40 million in the company. But before the meeting started, Samir Rao—pretending to be YouTube’s head of unscripted original programming—said he had issues with the video platform, and asked that everyone switch to a call.
Confronted with Smith’s reporting, the people at Ozy leveled an excuse: “This was a very personal mental health issue,” wrote Ozy’s other co-founder, Carlos Watson, in an email to Smith, which Watson also screenshotted and shared on Twitter. He said that personnel at Ozy reviewed the incident with Rao and “treated it for what it was—a medical issue.” Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between this defense and the one Elizabeth Holmes’ lawyers are prepared to level in her Theranos trial, which began earlier this month.
It’s known as the “mental disease or defect” defense, as my colleague Aaron Mak reported recently; in court filings, Holmes’ lawyers claimed that her ex-boyfriend and ex–business partner, Sunny Balwani, was abusive and controlling to the point where her mental state was impaired—suggesting that she should not be held accountable for her misleading and grandiose statements about her blood testing company.
Yes, “hurt people hurt people,” as the saying goes—it’s surely possible that someone who would go to elaborate lengths to defraud investors was having a difficult time psychologically. But a “mental health issue” can be real without changing the fact that the person who is struggling has agency, and even power.
Smith’s reporting in the Times has several key question marks hanging over it: How much did Watson himself know about Rao’s deception, and when? Why was Rao able to disseminate a fake Gmail address for the “YouTube executive” to participants before the meeting without raising red flags? Rao hasn’t personally commented on Smith’s story, so we can’t know exactly what was going on in his head in the lead-up to that Goldman Sachs call, or how he feels about it now. But one thing feels clear: A company’s insistence on framing its leader’s scheme to defraud potential investors as a “mental health issue” is bad news for all people who struggle with mental health—particularly at a moment when the zeitgeist is recognizing that a “very personal mental health issue” is something to take seriously.
It’s easy to see the benefits to Ozy stakeholders of pinning the misconduct on a mental health issue: This invokes a sense of privacy, and also confines the issue to one person, rather than a systemic issue at the company. Smith’s column suggests that trouble at Ozy was bigger than one person; he reports other ways Ozy appears to have been fluffing its numbers, like buying traffic or promoting a talk show uploaded to Amazon as “Amazon Prime’s First Talk Show.” Since his column published, other reporters have dug up further shenanigans. None of them is as stunning as the YouTube impersonation, but they do suggest that taking mischievous, premeditated steps to make Ozy look good was generally acceptable in the company culture.
And so it makes a kind of sad sense that Rao—despite committing what would surely be a fireable offense at most workplaces, especially if the perpetrator were a lower-ranking staffer—was allowed to remain in his job. A mental health issue shouldn’t be a get-out-of-consequences-free card or a shield; it is a reason for someone to have support and care, which might well involve support at work. Obliquely referring to a “mental health issue” and asking for privacy in instances of severe professional misconduct weakens the concept that sometimes people really do need a break. Moreover, people with mental health issues can possess integrity just the same as people without them. According to the National Institutes of Health in various years when surveys were conducted, 20 percent of adults had an anxiety disorder, 7 percent had at least one major depressive episode, and 1.5 percent met the criteria for a borderline personality disorder. That is a lot of people with “a mental health issue.” It’s also a lot of people who have (probably) never sold investors on phony blood-test technology or impersonated a YouTube executive on a conference call with Goldman Sachs.