Triggers: depression, suicide
I was saddened to hear the news of Aaron Swartz death last night. Aaron wasn’t really a mentor to me in any way. I was never really a big follower of the free culture and free software movement. What bothered me the most, was how the death occurred.
On January 11, 2013, Aaron took his own life.
There are a lot of theories out there by those searching for answers. Some believe it was the looming court case, or the harsh sentencing that might follow. But far more unsurprisingly, Aaron suffered from a common condition. Depression.
I debated with myself for a long time about whether or not I should talk about this. Its a sensitive area, with many lost souls, broken hearts and fractured minds. Just writing about it brings me to a place I’d rather not be. But its time to talk, because we can’t let this tragedy continue any more.
Mental illness is frighteningly prevalent in the software and technology industry*. And even more frightening is the fact that we are so isolated from each other that you really have no idea how bad it is.
It might come as no surprise that I succumbed to an episode of depression early last year. Thankfully, the bottom I bounced on for a while was just above what one might consider “at immediate risk of suicide”, but still enough to impact my quality of life.
What was surprising to me, was that many I have shared this detail with, have gone through the same thing.
I’ll say that again, because its really important.
There appears to be a far-above-average rate of depression and other mental illness in this field.
That is tragic.
Sadly, I’m just another hacker in the broader scheme of things. I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not even close to having answers that might help everyone get out of this. There are no concrete “cure” for depression. Its a cancer of the mind. There is therapy to help people untie the knot their heads have gotten into. There is medication to make it seem as though its not there. But its often up to those who live their lives to ensure they don’t get into it, or if they do get into it, are able to get out of it.
There’s only one thing I know for certain.
Software and Technology is a high-stakes, high-stress, hard-work industry. We are all amazing pioneers in one way or another, and that’s what society has come to expect of us. The problem is that there’s often a disconnect between the product of the inputs, and the perception of the process from others.
Advancing technology is really hard to get right, and requires lots of concentration to fit all the details together. As such, it isn’t really conductive to the kinds of social interaction that you might get in other fields of work. Many of those who work in this industry tend to be “hidden away and out of sight” – either in their basement, their bedroom, their office, their cubicle, or wherever. The means of interaction becomes a charade behind an IRC handle, or an email address, or an account of a bugtracker, or a forum or blog. Its the most productive way of working, so we tend to reward it. But it is also the fastest way to begin to lose touch, and then eventually, “lose it”. The stress increases, and the coping resources are already at critically low levels.
Perhaps that insight might be useful to someone else. But there’s not much I know or can say about why we are like that, or what we can do to ensure that it doesn’t lead to tragedy.
All I can say is that I really regret for waiting until the conversation I never had before talking about it.
* I do not mean this to say that mental illness and suicide is any more tragic in software than it is in any other field or walk of life. Any preventable loss of life is tragic, no matter what the reason, circumstances or cause.
edit: I don’t want to imply that every person in the industry had or has depression. Thankfully, there are some of us who were lucky enough to have never been there.