Justin Peters has written one of the best pieces on the life, death and legacy of Aaron Swartz I’ve seen. It’s unfortunate, though, that he felt the need to include comments on depression by obviously uninformed friends without any balancing perspective by those who know what they are talking about when it comes to mental illness.
A slight aside for some subtly leading context:
“Eight or nine months before he died, Swartz became fixated on Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s massive, byzantine novel. Swartz believed he could unwind the book’s threads and assemble them into a coherent, easily parsed whole. This was a hard problem, but he thought it could be solved. As his friend Seth Schoen wrote after his death, Swartz believed it was possible to “fix the world mainly by carefully explaining it to people.”
Trying to make a coherent whole of the brilliant, intentionally thready Infinite Jest (not to mention any consideration of David Foster Wallace’s sad end) could be a strong trigger for someone suffering from mental illness. But this is just an subtle hint at what become explicit soon after. The speculation goes off the proverbial rails with the observations of friends theorizing about Swartz:
Swartz’s family, friends, and supporters are almost unanimous in saying that his suicide took them entirely by surprise. They do not believe Swartz was clinically depressed—he was moody and occasionally melodramatic, maybe, but not depressed. “I’ve researched clinical depression and associated disorders. I’ve read their symptoms, and at least until the last 24 hours of his life, Aaron didn’t fit them,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote in a Feb. 4 blog post. “Depression is often like a bottle of ink in the bottom of your fish tank, and just everything is going to get colored black and impenetrable, no matter what goes in there,” says Wikler. “And Aaron wasn’t like that. Aaron was almost completely transparent.”
Despite planting the weasel-word “often,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman is apparently ignorant of an important point: “often” and, in my own relatively extensive experience as a long-term sufferer of depression many other sufferers–including too many who have suicided–maybe more often, there are no symptoms of depression visible to even the closest of friends and family. Even with chronic depression. Even suicidal depression and ideation.
Using the idea that depression wasn’t a factor in Swartz’s death because Kauffman (or any others) didn’t “see it” as a reason to place more (or complete) blame on MIT or the legal system is to perpetuate a dangerous attitude on the part of those who might be in a position to help someone considering suicide. Because, again based on my experience, the only clue you might have that someone is seriously depressed, or even about to kill themselves in the next days or hours, is a feeling, a hunch, an intuition that comes from something one has subconsciously apprehended.
I have no way of knowing whether Aaron Swartz was depressed or not and because of that I also have no way to assess how much the legal actions against him played any part in his decision to take his own life. The point is: neither does anyone else who has so far commented. There are better, more honorable ways to grieve than engaging in selfish, (sometimes self-aggrandizing) speculation.
It would be a good deal better if those who don’t and can’t know anything about the symptoms and etiology of mental illness–or who are obviously clueless about the whole thing–just shut up about it and spare the rest of us their non-expert testimony.