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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “How Depression Works

  1. I sometimes loathe it when people reference MLK’s comment about "the long arc of history." After all, MLK was just talking about things that mattered to enslaved African-Americans, and the progress they’ve made. History is much longer than the last few hundred years. For every step forward poor and fucked-over people have made in the time frame MLK is referencing, one can submit thousands upon thousands of years where human beings showed no societal improvement.

    At the same time, we can’t dismiss his analysis either. Right now it seems as though media control by corporate interests will ensure a future of human servitude and environmental devastation. That’s a rational prediction and it’s quite reasonable to be depressed by it — and not in just a "brain chemicals need medication" but a "we’re all fucked" sense.

    Still, we can’t know what will happen. I often found Howard Zinn way too blithely optimistic, yet he pointed out how the civil rights movement was stalled on tactics for decades until a few guys decided to make a lunch counter refuse to serve them. That got everything moving in such a huge way, and it wasn’t something the civil-rights leaders had thought of.

    We simply don’t know where our efforts will lead. One word in the right place can have an effect we never might have predicted. Nobody’s thoughts or actions exist in a vacuum; we’re all the product of experiences and interactions we’ve had before.

    I think our species is doomed, and I don’t know how to avert that — but to say everything I’ve ever said or written is useless is as presumptuous a concept as saying "God exists and wants me to eat fish on Friday." No rational person can prove that. It’s not rational to assume one’s efforts are worthless, either. We just don’t know, do we?

  2. @JMF – I’m glad you brought up Zinn, because he [i]was[/i] a really cheery person, even though he saw how terrible the world is. But that doesn’t even mean that a two year crusade against him mightn’t have pushed him over the edge.

    I think it is important for the government to understand that their aggressive prosecution of Aaron Swartz gave him the death penalty without due process. In most cases, the process itself is far too much punishment. We need to treat each other better.


  3. Ah, Pete T. I grew up in a fundamentalist household which forbade rock-and-roll (except Bob Dylan, oddly enough.) At my religious private high school, the nicer cool kids were kind enough to explain to me what their references to R&R meant without too much mockery. (The meaner cool kids were, well, meaner, and I’m glad to report they’ve made as much of an impact on the planet as I have.)

    "Pinball Wizard" was a favorite reference point of the nice kids, and I remember finally hearing it for the first time. It had acoustic guitar, like the early Dylan (and Kingston Trio) stuff I knew from ages past, but then exploded into electric in a way that made me think "oh, Jeez, this is evil, but I love it." The long slow slide into depravity began there (among a few other places.)

    Jarvis Cocker’s "Running The World" is a very simple song I admire, with a killer opening stanza. "Did you hear there’s a natural order/ Those deserving will end up with the most / That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top / Well, I say, shit floats." Cocker also wrote Pulp’s "Common People," which strangely enough has an excellent cover version by William Shatner.

    I think I’ll spend much of the rest of my day off re-listening to old Who records, now . . .

  4. @JMF – Brits do have a way with words, "Cunts are running the world." Gang of Four’s "Not Great Men" had a profound effect on me when I was younger.

    I think Shatner’s music has always been really interesting. He has a bad rap because he tries to do stuff. As an artist whose greatest failing is constantly worrying that people are scoffing, I admire his commitment to whatever he does.

    I’m not that big a fan of the Who. It has its moments, of course. And [i]Tommy[/i] is really good. Actually, that late 60s, early 70s period is very strong. I most like Townshend’s solo work. [i]All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes[/i] is a really great album. As with Shatner, it is committed. A friend of mine used to make fun of [i]Stop Hurting People[/i] for exactly the reason I love it.

    Love conquers poses
    Love smashes stances
    Love crushes angels into black

  5. Back to the original topic…

    It’s easy to say of someone who chooses death over continued existence that "he had so much to live for". Aaron Swartz didn’t. In his mind, in his reality, so darkened by a black and endless cloud of despair, death was probably the lesser of two evils. It is very true that anyone who has never suffered from true, deep depression has no possible way of understanding the insidious way it can twist your reality by casting a pall over happiness, turn love into an obligation, and hope into a childish fantasy. The fact that no one near him was able to see the signs of a young man struggling or, if they did, encourage him to seek help. Help he himself knew was available. Sadly his depression overwhelmed before help arrived.

    In 2007, on his blog (, the wrote this:

    [quote][b]Depressed mood:[/b] Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

    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."

    The economist Richard Layard, after advocating that the goal of public policy should be to maximize happiness, set out to learn what the greatest impediment to happiness was today. His conclusion: depression. Depression causes nearly half of all disability, it affects one in six, and explains more current unhappiness than poverty. And (important for public policy) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a short-term success rate of 50%. Sadly, depression (like other mental illnesses, especially addiction) is not seen as “real” enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer (1 in 8) or AIDS (1 in 150). And there is, of course, the shame.

    So I hope you’ll forgive me for not doing more. And hey, it could be worse. At least I have decent health insurance.[/quote]

  6. @Andrea – I know that you know depression. I have nothing to add on that score. But while I don’t ever blame someone for taking their own lives, I think that in most circumstances it is a terrible mistake. I see it almost as an accident: the difference between life and death can be so small. In Swartz’s case any unwelcome intrusion (from his perspective) could have changed things. It isn’t that it wouldn’t have been an issue going forward but you make decisions every instant.

    Anyway, this is why I’ve been focused on suicides and accidents regarding guns. In some ways the gun nuts are right: there is a limit to what you can do about crazy and angry people. But just not having guns around will make rash decisions and accidents less likely. Not that that would have helped Swartz. But there are many thousands every year for whom it would.

  7. I didn’t know that Aaron had shot himself. I suppose, to me, his method was immaterial.

    Unless someone is terminally ill, suicide is never a truly rational decision. Most suicides probably are accidental, a fatal lapse in judgment, and the signs of possibly suicidal depression can be easy to dismiss or ignore — even by the sufferer. Having no experience with suicide, it wouldn’t even occur to most people that having a gun in the house is a treacherous temptation for [i]anyone[/i] suffering from depression or other emotional and mental troubles.

    But, as I said, his method isn’t the real tragedy. It wouldn’t be less sad if he had jumped to his death or hung himself. More upsetting is our society’s inability or unwillingness to admit that our mental healthcare system is a failure. As Aaron himself wrote, "Sadly, depression…is not seen as ‘real’ enough to deserve the investment and awareness of conditions like breast cancer…or AIDS… And there is, of course, the shame."

    I could go on and on, but I’ll save it for my own treatise on suicide and the right to die.

  8. @Andrea – You misunderstood me. I said that it would [i]not[/i] have helped him. He hanged himself. I agree that the method doesn’t matter. My problem with guns is that it is so easy. Hanging yourself at least gives you a little more time to think about it. Truly, it would be a major feat if I even figured out how to do it. But I sure could use a gun.

    Actually, given my own problems, there were times when I might have done it if I had had a gun around. So I’m glad that I don’t.

    And he is right about how depression is perceived. I really hate the "buck up" chorus.

  9. Andrea — our system IS a joke. You want a screed? Here’s a screed.

    The "Tea Party" (historically inaccurate name; the original Tea Party types were smugglers who resented England’s removal of taxes on tea which made smuggling less profitable; hence, they were pro-tax and anti-corporation) would not exist today if Obama and the Dems hadn’t caved on the "public option." Insurance execs testified before Congress that a public option would put them out of business. It would be cheaper and more effective. No blowhards decrying "socialist healthcare" would survive most Americans seeing their bills go down and their ability to seek out a doctor, if needed, go up.

    You and this site’s author agree on this, I think. It’s a question of focus. Mr. "Frank" spends most of his efforts writing on a variety of political topics. Those of us who have lost loved ones to the US "health care" system might want more of a focus on that abomination. If, by chance, a person who knows people killed by drone attacks should stop by, she/he would prefer writing on that subject.

    You’re not wrong to be mad, though — our health insurers quite simply kill people for profit. Wal-Mart and other low-wage employers treat workers abysmally, yet those workers often survive each shift. Private health insurers only make money by denying treatment and killing patients. It’s about the foulest institution a person can work for, and a considerable chunk of Americans work for it.

  10. @JMF – I still think the right thing to do is for the government to buy out the healthcare industry. It really isn’t worth that much and it is the only way to go forward. Protecting insurance profits will only stop reform as we already saw in the ACA. By the way, read, [i]The Mendacity of Hope[/i] if you get a chance.

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