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.
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.
While loved ones often search for answers after someone they know takes their own life, the answers are never very satisfying. In Aaron Swartz’s case, it appears that the jump to the cause and effect conclusion that his legal troubles led to his decision is overly simplistic. Young adults get into legal troubles all the time — especially in certain disadvantaged parts of this country. The vast majority of them don’t take their own lives.
But we know that in most cases of suicide what is nearly always present is a history of clinical depression. And at the time the person has taken their life, it is depression that is either not being treated at all, or being treated inadequately. Swartz seemed to understand this, as he thought a great deal about depression, and linked to this description by George Scialabba:
Certainty that an acute episode [of depression] will last only a week, a month, even a year, would change everything. It would still be a ghastly ordeal, but the worst thing about it—the incessant yearning for death, the compulsion toward suicide—would drop away. But no, a limited depression, a depression with hope, is a contradiction. The experience of convulsive pain, along with the conviction that it will never end except in death—that is the definition of a severe depression.
Clinical depression — like all mental disorders — is exacerbated by stress. The more stress you have in your life, the worse the problem is usually going to get. Getting the book thrown at you by a federal prosecutor and facing the possibility of months (the last plea deal the U.S. Attorney was said to have offered was 6 months) or even years in jail is stressful. To a sensitive, brilliant person — as Aaron Swartz was reported to have been — it was probably beyond stressful.1
Put those two together — depression and a huge stressor — and you have the recipe for a classic case of suicide.
And some people picked up on his down mood, as danah boyd said:
I knew he was struggling, but he was also a passionate activist and I genuinely thought that would see him through this dark period.
Which is a sentence we read time and time again from friends or family members after someone takes their own life. “I knew he was struggling…” and yet… I thought he would be okay.
Silicon Valley is a Culture of Denial & High Stress
Not surprising, for people who are predisposed to depression, some work environments are not ideal. Wall Street, for example, is not a good place to work for a person with depression. Neither is Silicon Valley or really in any startup.
Startups, by definition, are high-pressure work environments, where a small group of people (usually young, white males) work 18- or 20-hour days to produce a product or service they believe will be The Next Big Thing (ala Facebook).
But because startups don’t live in a protected bubble, they’re going to suffer from the same human problems any company comprised of ordinary humans is going to suffer — people with mental illness. After all, 1 in 10 people among us have one. Silicon Valley and tech startups are no different.
As investor Brad Feld notes,
“Many entrepreneurs don’t feel like they can talk openly about their depression, as they don’t want their investors, employees, or customers to know they are struggling with it,” he says. “For anyone who has been depressed, not being able to be open about it with the people around you makes depression even harder to deal with.”
Startups think they are “special” because they have some money and an idea. What they often don’t realize is that when it comes to the messy human things — like emotions or health problems — they are just like every one of us.
Fixing the Problem
Every tech startup, every VC firm, and indeed, every workplace has the power to help reduce future suicides. All they need do is to stop tolerating discrimination and prejudice against those who have a mental illness. If someone speaks up about their own depression or other mental illness, they should be met with the same open empathy you might give someone who was just diagnosed with cancer or diabetes. You make adjustments to help them make it through this period of their lives.
This sounds easy, but is harder than you might realize. Stigma still exists in many parts of our society, and often found among people who don’t think twice about health problems. There are still many — too many — who believe mental illness is a “made up” problem and that people can just help themselves out of the problem if they only put their mind to it.
There is hope — there is always hope. If anything good can come from a tragedy like this, perhaps it is helping others to better understand the vicious cycle of depression — one that can ultimately lead to suicide for some.
- Please don’t write me about how it’s inappropriate to discuss Aaron Swartz’s depression after his suicide — suicide is caused by untreated or under-treated depression. He was an activist, so he — of all people — would understand. [↩]