Swartz On Depression: ‘Unable To Feel The Joy’

I can’t stop thinking about what, exactly, drove 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, the technology whiz kid and free-information crusader facing federal charges for wire and computer fraud, to hang himself last Friday. What was the final straw that broke this brilliant, so-very-promising young man?

His family clearly believed it was government persecution. In a statement they said his suicide “is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

But Swartz’ own writings suggest that he suffered from depression, which could have been a factor as well.  In 2007 he offered this portrait of his distraught state of mind; the deadened outlook and sense of being trapped in a downward spiral:

Depressed mood: 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.”

Readers, what do you think? Is suicide the inevitable end to such “harsh charges” by the government? Was there some biological predisposition at work here, triggered by the intensity of Swartz’ dilemma, his sense of being hounded by prosecutors? Of course, we’ll never know the true answer. Still, are there ways to deal with this kind of depression in young people and help make the often harsh, hard-edged forces of life feel less overwhelming?

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  • Anne D.

    I know what it’s like to want to blame someone else when a family member takes his life which is what I think is happening here (gov’t, etc.) The answer is maybe there was a biological predisposition, but I agree we’ll never know the true answer. Yes, there are ways to reach out to young people in emotional pain, programs like the ones at campuses across the country funded by Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention Grant .


  • adistantsecond

    It would have been heroic of the federal prosecutor not to go after Aaron if they had known about his blog and read his post on depression but that’s a huge if and nobody is ethically or morally required to be heroic.

    It’s also difficult not to bring ideology into what would have been to Aaron an intensely personal issue because Aaron himself was quite the free culture activist. Who can blame Lessig for using this as a platform to advance his argument against the state or Ortiz for choosing Swartz as being the perfect legal battleground on which to establish legal guidelines on intellectual property?

    And In the midst of it, yes, there’s Aaron dealing with his issues, much too young to be embroiled in this world of scheming and politics. What can anybody do but be kind to the people in their own lives who need help to seek it, and to not make light of an illness that afflicts so many of us?