How Depression Works

Aaron SwartzI noticed something very troubling about the reporting on Aaron Swartz’s suicide. Among his friends and supporters, there was little understanding of depression. The great Lawrence Lessig was on Democracy Now! to talk about Swartz on Monday. He presented more or less a hagiography. But he also said, “Aaron was depressed. He was rationally depressed.” I don’t mean to attack Lessig who was clearly very close to Swartz and very upset about his death. But Lessig doesn’t understand depression. As Swartz wrote, “Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason, and it doesn’t go for any either.”

On the other side are comments like those of Matt Yglesias, a big Swartz booster, who said, “People commit suicide because they suffer from depression, which he did, not because they’re being railroaded by the U.S. Attorney, which he was.” That’s not right either. It’s too convenient. Most people who suffer from depression never take their own lives.

I don’t pretend to know what Aaron Swartz was thinking and feeling. But I do have a lot of experience with depression. Indeed it does come and go for no apparent reason. But it is best to think of it like the weather: it is unpredictable, but there are both internal and external forces that affect it. I doubt those forces go so far as Lessig would have it. It seems unlikely that Swartz killed himself because he was disappointed in humanity. But a years long fight with an unyielding and impersonal government bureaucracy was certainly forcing Startz’s mood swings toward depression.

The main thing here is that there is a tipping point. Depression is characterized by the feeling of hopelessness: you could do this or that but what is the point? I know that even at my lowest, I retain at least the intellectual notion that things can be better. That is enough to continue on—slog through to a brighter time that might lie ahead. And I think that is what keeps us all going. But circumstances can push us too far down, and that is when depression becomes life threatening.

Yglesias’ claim that Swartz did not kill himself because he was being railroaded by the U.S. Attorney is partly right. I feel pretty sure when he killed himself, Swartz wasn’t doing it just because of the legal injustice he was enduring. But I have no doubt whatsoever that it colored how Swartz saw the universe. And that means the justice system is culpable in his death. (And it is the whole system and not just people like Carmen Ortiz.)

Of course, nothing will change. The same thing will happen again and again, just not very often to such a high profile victim.