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Aaron Swartz & A Culture of Denial: Depression & Suicide in Tech

Aaron Swartz, 26, an Internet developer and activist, committed suicide last week. The tech world has since been ablaze commenting and speculating on his life… and his death.

While many people point to the cause of his death connected to the overzealous prosecution by U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, it’s unlikely that a single thing led to his decision. If Aaron Swartz was like most of the 100 people every day who take their own lives in this country, the biggest thing that likely led to his death was untreated or under-treated depression.

Which comes as no surprise to people who knew him and have written about him. Nor after reading his own struggles with depression earlier in his life.

His passing is indeed a tragedy. But it’s time to realize that he lived and thrived in a technology sub-culture that mostly doesn’t understand — or care much — about mental illness.

17 Comments to
Aaron Swartz & A Culture of Denial: Depression & Suicide in Tech

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  1. Beautifully written John.

  2. It may not have been as high profile (as there wasn’t the hacking element to it), but there were similar issues raised when one of the founders of Diaspora committed suicide in 2011:
    Certainly the bro-grammer and anti #fail culture of tech needs some working on.

  3. To be clear, Aaron didn’t work in Silicon Valley, or at a startup. Aaron was running his own well-funded team in an office in New York City at a 20 year-old company with good healthcare run by adults. It was not a high-stress work environment; I know, because I spent time on that team. I assure you that none of us deny the seriousness of depression, least of all me.

    But Aaron was very private person, and although he put a tremendous amount of pressure on himself to do the right thing, it could be hard to tell what his internal state was. At any rate, at the end, his efforts were focused almost completely on the trial, not on code. He spent time strategizing about how to bring around MIT and working with his lawyers. We surrounded him with help and were raising funds for his defense.

    He had love and support. He kept on expressing optimistic sentiments, like “this is going to be a good year.” He apparently acted cheerful the morning-of. His friends and partner are shattered. This Monday-morning quarterbacking does not help them.

    • Thanks for the clarification, bguthrie.

      But the primary purpose of an entry such as this is not to offer solace to those who are grieving Mr. Swartz’s passing (could any stranger do that?), or to “Monday morning quarterback.” Survivor guilt is common among those who continue after a loved one has taken his or her life; I know, I’ve been there myself.

      Instead, it’s to call attention to the epidemic tragedy of suicide in America, and specifically, in the sub-culture of the technology field that is oblivious to mental health concerns amongst their peers.

      Most of us are “private” people when it comes to discussing our own health or mental health concerns with others — even loved ones. And that, precisely, is the problem. We live in a culture where such expression is frowned upon, mocked, ridiculed, and downplayed. Especially, I dare say, amongst men.

      Mr. Swartz’s death can serve as a catalyst — a fitting tribute to a brilliant activist’s life. It is my hope such a thing may come to pass.

      • John, I appreciate your response to bguthrie. He obviously missed the point of your article. The stigma of mental illness exists because of people like him.

  4. I thought of Ilya and noisebridge right away when I heard what happened to aaron.

  5. Thank you for pointing to depression in Aaron’s suicide. While it feels better to rage against the government/legal system/MIT, depression is the culprit in most suicides. The vulnerability caused by depression makes everything seem unbearable. The fact that someone seems cheerful before a suicide often means they are relieved by having made the decision to check out.

    I feel heartbroken by this young man’s death, as a mother and a “survivor” of suicide. Erasing the stigma of depression would save lives. Denying that our loved ones are “really” depressed is a habit that needs to be challenged for everyone’s sake.

  6. I’m in the middle of a severe depressive episode right now. I have to echo what Sister Wolf said, “Erasing the stigma of depression would save lives. Denying that our loved ones are “really” depressed is a habit that needs to be challenged for everyone’s sake.” I’m on medication and it’s not working. It wasn’t until reading about Aaron that I appreciated the lethality of depression (because i have been struggling with invasive suicidal thoughts). It has made me seek out more help…which brings me to….holy crap, there is no help out there. My appointment is a few weeks out. I have money and insurance, half the depression treatment places I called did not even take insurance. What are people supposed to do when they *are* seeking help and can’t find it? I work in law…and while writing this message I just got a text that my dad was just laid off – he works in tech…and this is not something my family can deal with, at 65 no company is going to hire him. I need to be there for my folks, but I really want to go lie down in the middle of traffic because the world is just so freakin’ unjust.

    • ‘K’ – please seek help today.. a minister, a priest, a good friend.. Your thoughts can trigger an incident that you can’t take back. Your family will be left with a guilt trip they will never let go of.. I know. My father committed suicide many years ago… we had no idea he was so unhappy with his life. He kept that inside, and the end was the most awful moment of me and my sisters lives. Please don’t wait weeks to see someone.. there are people out there ‘hotlines’, suicide survivors,…. depression is a tough thing to manage… but suicide is not the answer.

  7. What is more troubling is that people who are victimized by institutions are more likely to be branded “mentally ill” than taken seriously as individuals with legitimate grievances. It discredits them and their actions for the sake of the rest of society, and ensures that they will be patronized and disadvantaged.

    I’m glad this article makes a bunch of people feel better, and they can believe what they want.

    The fact remains that Swartz was being persecuted by an awesome, cynical, political machine against which he had lost his leverage. I hope he remains an inspiration to people. I also hope a thousand true hackers take his place and continue to challenge the legitimacy of institutions by demonstrating the flaws, weaknesses and hypocrisies of those who derive their authority from convention, conformity and political opportunism.

    Swartz was not mentally ill, he was cornered. We know the difference.

    • Hi James, thanks for your comment.

      I don’t pretend to know Swartz or whether he was “mentally ill” or not. I’m just sharing with people the facts of suicide — that it’s usually caused by depression, and Swartz previously admitted to bouts of depression.

      Certainly the legal pressure exerted on him did not help, and certainly U.S. Attorneys should be more sensitive to prosecuting those who have serious health or mental health problems.

      But first, people need to speak up. From reading dozens of stories and blog entries around the web about people who knew Swartz first-hand, it did not sound like he was a person who easily shared his emotional state or feelings with others. Part of this may have been his personality, his personal preference, or something else — such as knowing that sharing such feelings is frowned upon in our society (and is definitely not associated with being a cool hacker).

      If others don’t know what’s going on internally with you, nobody can help.

  8. While I haven’t worked in a startup for many years, I’m heading that direction again. Speaking for someone who has been in geek culture his whole life, and occasionally dipped a toe in the world of high stress startups, I think perhaps you’re being overly broad.

    I suffer from chronic, severe depression. The people I surround myself with in the daily life tend to be extremely cognizant and concerned with each other’s mental well being.

    I certainly realize that one person’s experiences doesn’t invalidate your premise, and maybe I just wasn’t in a high-stakes enough startup, but the company I worked with was very caring towards everybody. I couldn’t have made it through some of the situations I was in without the caring people I worked with.

  9. The author of this article simply misses the point, he is critiquing what he thinks he knows, not what any research he’s done points to.

  10. Having worked in tech for twenty years, I can attest that, especially among engineers, this is a taboo subject. Especially within younger companies, there is a Darwinian culture. Discussing any sort of mental health issue with your peers will get you pegged as weak, and if you’re an entrepreneur, you damned well better keep your mouth shut about it or you’ll be blackballed. I know there are exceptions, usually larger more established companies that also have an older workforce, but that’s just the way it is.

    It’s not so much an industry thing, its just that engineers as a group are mostly male, and are not known for social skills, empathy, etc.

  11. John,
    Thank you for your article. I am a mom, a registered nurse, a wife, a friend, a Christian, a daughter,a graduate student and a sister. I am also someone who knows what severe depression feels like first hand. I have had to fight is on and off since I was a teenager and I have gotten to the point where, at age 51, “I control this depression and it won’t control me.” Many, many people are in denial and they simply can’t wrap their brains around the idea that mental illness is NOT made up and without access to care, many people die much sooner than necessary–not just from suicide, but from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses.
    I am in the process of writing a paper for my Policy and Advocacy class and the thought came to my mind that mental illness=denial for so many people and your article brought some clarity and insight to what came to mind. Thank you again for an excellent and timely article.

  12. Aaron committed suicide because he was going to prison. End of story. Depressed people do very poorly in prison. There is very little help for the depressed. The American Penal System does not care about depressed or mentally ill prisoners.

  13. we have the best health care system in the world
    s/best/most costly
    s/health care/prison



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