The Internet was on fire this weekend with discussion and remembrances of Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young man who committed suicide on Friday. He was especially widely remembered in the tech community, given his contributions to the field, and his death had a ripple affect across the Internet as people attempted to come to terms with it.
Swartz was a key architect in many of the technologies we use on a daily basis, including RSS, but he rose to public prominence in 2011 when he became involved in a legal case surrounding the unauthorized download of journal articles from JSTOR. Swartz downloaded the articles as an act of political protest (researchers memorialized him with a protest of their own), and it set off a firestorm, one that JSTOR later regretted. Oddly enough, JSTOR just announced a wider expansion of its Register and Read program, which allows people to access a limited number of free journal articles every week.
But this is not a piece about JSTOR and Swartz’s activism, or the legal cases he found himself entangled in, because this was not the first time he clashed with the law over information, access, and freedom.
This is a piece about suicide.
In the wake of any suicide, but especially a very public and prominent one, there is a rush to attribute reasons, and there is a collective sense of panicked guilt as people struggle to understand what happened and why.
Suicide touches on a very special kind of group anxiety, and the result is often a flood of troubling, problematic and dubious responses. People seek some kind of explanation and reassurance, and many of them want to know that suicide is not something that can touch them, that it is something cold and distant that can be fended off if you’re just determined enough.
Here is the thing about suicide: It’s the result of an illness. And mental illness is complicated, requiring lifetime management. Depression and related mental health conditions are very intricate things and suicide must be viewed within the context of these larger illnesses -- Swartz in many ways reminds me of myself, and of those I’ve lost to suicide.
He had high standards for himself and others. He often felt let down by the people around him. He struggled to reconcile his desire with how people should act with how they did, and probably tormented himself with what he saw as his personal failings. He was blunt and outspoken, which made some people uncomfortable around him. He struggled with his own inner demons and monsters, and he had depression.
SUICIDE, DEPRESSION, AND EXTERNALITIES
When people hear “depression,” they may conjure up a specific image of what depression is like, but depression is not quite as simple as it’s often made out to be. And it’s not necessarily about external factors or the people around you. Swartz, like many people who commit suicide, was surrounded by people who loved him and probably told him so on a regular basis. And he was also surrounded by intense external pressures, including the looming threat of prosecution and possible jail time.
In discussions about suicide, people often say that the responsibility lies with external factors: so-and-so was under too much pressure, so-and-so was struggling with work/school/relationships/some other factor. People should have let so-and-so know that support was available. If only so-and-so had talked.
When people talk about suicide prevention in this context, it becomes a parade of externalities. And a lot of those externalities place a heavy burden on depressed people -- you should reach out for help, and talk. Even though articulating emotions and depression can be hard, and even though many depressed people end up having to comfort the people they reach out to, because most people are not trained professionals who are able to handle confessions of suicidal thoughts.
In an environment where you have a choice between “talking to a friend” and knowing that your friend will freak out and not know what to do, and keeping quiet, you keep quiet. Because when you are depressed and struggling with thoughts of suicide, you are not prepared to become someone else’s emotional support, and it’s unreasonable to demand that you open up to friends who aren’t ready for it. Not just unreasonable for you, but also for them -- they shouldn’t be burdened with situations that they can’t handle.
There is a sense, too, of blame that comes up in these conversations. Inevitably, friends and family who are mourning a loved one are also challenged. Why didn’t they recognize the signs? Why didn’t they reach out and try to help? Why didn’t they encourage their loved ones to open up and talk?
This is much less common when someone dies of, say, cancer -- “Gosh, I can’t believe you just let your mother get breast cancer like that, what’s wrong with you.” It puts unreasonable pressure on loved ones to suggest that suicide can be prevented by talking alone. You can try as hard as you can to save someone’s life, seeing that person struggling, and still not succeed. And you will live with that for the rest of your life.
That’s not a personal failure. That’s illness. Just like when your mother dies of breast cancer after being supported and after pursuing every possible treatment option, that’s not a personal failure.
DEPRESSION IS A JERK
Depression is an asshole. Depression is a motherfucker. Depression is a thief in the night that will sneak up and steal what you love, and you won’t even notice until you wake up and the other side of the bed is cold, with a shallow curve in the mattress where someone used to lie.
Depression is not your fault.
Do environmental factors play a role in mental health conditions, including depression? Absolutely they do, and so does the level of support available from friends and family. But these things are not solely responsible for suicide, nor do they solely determine whether someone will survive depression or not.
It’s not about personal strength or how much you’re loved or what kind of environment you live in -- and demanding that people “just” change any of these things ignores the complex realities of depression.
Depression is an illness, and like other illnesses, it requires treatment by a trained expert who has experience with it. Like other illnesses, too, sometimes it kills.
How do we prevent suicide? By interpreting it within the context of the disease it is a part of -- by improving treatment options for depression, by destigmatizing mental illness, by making sure that people know where to find resources for themselves or for loved ones. By addressing the lack of social support that can create stress for depressed people, and by making sure that treatment is freely accessible to all who need it.
And by recognizing that suicide and mental illness are complicated. If you’ve lost a loved one to suicide, don’t blame yourself: blame the disease that stole your loved one from you.