Friendship 2.0

Connecting and Disconnecting in Modern Life

Aaron Swartz and Depression

A different lesson we can take from tragedy.

The tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz has given momentum to a crusade. Swartz, a brilliant tech pioneer motivated by a desire to provide free public access to various documents, had allegedly broken in and downloaded millions of them from JSTOR. JSTOR was a collection of academic research, much of it funded by taxpayer dollars. Swartz was indicted and faced charges that could have carried penalties of a million dollars in fines and 35 years' incarceration.  His death has been seen by many as a call to arms to refine hacking laws, and to finally begin a new discussion about regulations and legislation that are more rational and reflective of the world in which we live. And that's a good thing.

But.

There is another piece here, a piece that bears the weight of human suffering in a way much more profound than does a discussion of digital freedoms. To forget the very likely role that depression -- and a history of depression that predated his legal troubles -- played in his death is to ignore a devastating and urgent public problem, and to lose it as an opportunity to help others.

More than 38,000 Americans commit suicide every year. Young, old, rich, poor, tech-savvy or off the grid -- it's a national problem, though Aaron's demographic as a young male carries a particularly high risk. Brilliance, ambition, education, passion and motivation are by no means protection from depression or suicidal ideation. In fact, there's some evidence that creative thinkers might be even more prone to the darkest of thoughts. Proper treatment exists, however, and has a respectably high rate of success. The trick is getting people into it.

"Everything gets colored by the sadness," Swartz once wrote. "You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none." To read those words now feels excruciating, but he was speaking the language of suffering that all too many people face, in this very moment, each and every day.   

Let's have that conversation about hacking laws and how to wrestle with the new frontier of technology. But, arguably even more germane to the bulk of Americans, let's recognize how devastatingly common depression can be, and learn to act on the warning signs -- social withdrawal, increased substance abuse or risk-taking, hopelessness, talking about ending things, even in an offhand way -- to get friends and family into professional help. I don't pretend to know the circumstances of Aaron's tragedy, and am not looking to lay blame on anyone. But if one person reaches out -- to help someone, or for help from someone -- after hearing about it, we can begin to see some light in the darkness.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you are imminently concerned about someone, don't leave them alone. Remove anything that could be used for them to hurt themselves -- pills, firearms, sharp objects -- and call the NSPH number above or take them to the nearest emergency room.

Most of all, don't be afraid to open a conversation with someone you're concerned about. Many people shy away from it and say nothing, worried they'll "put ideas in someone's head" or that they're overreacting. All too often, leaving things unsaid is an action rather than an inaction, and one that can have devastating consequences.

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Georgetown University. She is the writer behind Baggage Check and the author of The Friendship Fix.

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Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., is the author of The Friendship Fix and teaches at Georgetown University.

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