Aaron Swartz death on Friday, January 11, 2013 is a vivid reminder that “suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24, and is the 10th leading cause of death overall.”
This amazing, talented, socially-aware and active young man did much good in his short life starting with co-writing RSS 1.0 at 14 years old, co-founding the social news and entertainment website Reddit, and founding Demand Progress, the advocacy organization whose mission is “to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying.”
Aaron was open about his depression. A November 2007 post on his blog, Raw Thought, Sick, he eloquently described depression:
“At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms. As George Scialabba put it, “acute depression does not feel like falling ill, it feels like being tortured … the pain is not localized; it runs along every nerve, an unconsuming fire. … Even though one knows better, one cannot believe that it will ever end, or that anyone else has ever felt anything like it.”
He also wrote:
” I don’t talk about it much, for a variety of reasons. I feel ashamed to have an illness. (It sounds absurd, but there still is an enormous stigma around being sick.) I don’t want to use being ill as an excuse. (Although I sometimes wonder how much more productive I’d be if I wasn’t so sick.) And, to a large extent, I just don’t find it an interesting subject. (My friends are amazed by this; why is such a curious person so uncurious about the things so directly affecting his life?)”
That’s the thing with depression and other mental illnesses. On top of the disease itself, making life often feel unbearable and making it difficult to be proactive in performing good self-care and motivated toward behaviors which can alleviate depressive symptoms, there’s the issue of stigma. Stigma against mental illness is a well-known, much reported barrier preventing people from seeking timely, appropriate treatment. In a previous post, Stigma and Mental Illness, I stated, “The stigmatization is justified on a large-scale by a misconception that those people,” in this instance the stigmatized group being those with mental illnesses, are somehow responsible for their condition, that it stems from some type of character flaw, poor behavior, laziness, or incompetence,.” The World Health Organization, National Institute of Mental Health, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration all have initiatives to fight stigma, and know it is a significant barrier to effective treatment. And too often not addressed at all is how stigma gets internalized and becomes self-stigma which keeps many, many people from seeking help.
I don’t know how Aaron treated his depression, or even if he treated it, or if he, like too many, felt the need to “tough it out” or ride it out, alone.
A post on his blog, Raw Meat, says, “part of the Player Character Code is that you don’t give up when something seems impossible.” It is particularly poignant at this moment.
Suicide is a long-term solution to a temporary state which is often treatable to the point of full and permanent recovery. My heart goes out to his family, to those who cared about him, and to everyone who looked up to him as an inspiration A light has gone out in the world. A voice promoting social justice has been silenced too soon. May his legacy long live on.
Written by Michelle Sicignano, LMSW, Staff Writer, SJS
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How sad for one so young to choose suicide over accepting help and admitting depression. Our society needs to be more open to the fact that depression and other forms of mental health issues are here and have been here since the beginning of time!
No one should feel ashamed because of how they feel or hesitate in seeking help. That is the problem. So, how to change this mentality? Many of the greatest minds in the world have been touched by mental health issues or disabilities. What they accomplished may not have happened otherwise.
Mental Health issues are no different than cardiac problems or diabietes.
RIP Aaron. I know the shame you felt at being considered “mentally ill.” As an LCSW who suffers from depression, I kept it a secret, telling no one that I was medicated. Finally, I had the courage, not to broadcast it, but to accept that I could still be effective as a therapist even though I had the illness, and perhaps more so since I have first hand knowledge of the pain having depression causes. I am still doing battle and there are days when I feel as though it’s defeating me. But, I’m still winning small victories, now and then.
The stigma associated with mental disease must be eradicated and early detection and appropriate treatment must be a major goal. Here’s hoping our voices will be heard before there are more needless deaths by suicide or mass killings.
Thank you, Judy, for sharing this part of your personal story. That is how we end stigma; we talk openly about these things, and realize there is no more shame in mental illness than there is physical illness. Thanks for your openness. I agree that is high time we take up the challenge to truly end this type of stigma and fully treat mental illness as vigorously as we do physical disease.