RIP Aaron. You are not alone

The corner of the internet that I hang around in has been mourning all weekend with tributes, eulogies, and heartfelt sharing about the untimely death of Aaron Swartz.

I don’t remember meeting Aaron personally, but I have heard him speak, am friends with many of his friends, and was very aware of his work and activism.

I am furious and sad to hear that he took his own life. I have lost a few friends and relatives to suicide, and years ago wrestled with some of these demons myself. Honestly, I am not sure how I feel about politicizing this moment. There are strong arguments on both sides. Being persecuted by the state is horribly stressful and isolating, and I also feel strongly about many of issues that Aaron advocated for. But, I am concerned about responses that reduce and simplify Aaron’s complex decision. This post about suicide reporting on the internet raises the concern that sensational reporting causes an increase in suicides in the wake of the coverage.

What I want to contribute to this conversation is an important message to any geeks, hackers, or activists that are struggling with isolation, alienation, depression, or even suicidal thoughts. You are not alone. And, sometimes it takes alot of courage to decide to stay alive.

For the past 10 years, radical mental health groups like The Icarus Project have been developing support materials for activists that provide alternative ways of thinking and talking about mental health. Take a peek at their forums, publications, podcasts, documentaries, and more. They have really helped so many people rewrite their own narratives, and connect with others struggling with similar emotions.

In the past year or two especially, I have seen more and more geeks/hackers who are attempting to organize around these issues, eliminate stigma, and provide peer-support outside of the mainstream psychiatric paradigm. Geeks, hackers, and activists are especially suspicious of authority, and habitually question systems of power.  They are justifiably mistrustful of psychiatry, but need a place to turn to for support.

I don’t know the state of all of these projects, but they seem like a good place to pick up the conversation for how can we take better care of each other and provide kind of compassionate support we all need so horrible tragedies like Aaron’s, Ilya’s and countless others can be averted in the future.

  • Blue Hackers is a fledgling community of hackers dealing with depression
  • At HOPE#9 this past summer, there was a 3 hour (!) panel on Geeks and Depression. The notes and slides were posted here.
  • Just last month, at the Chaos Communications Conference (29c3), Violet Blue gave a talk on Hackers as a High-Risk population, and suggested a harm-reduction approach for thinking and talking about these issues.

It feels like there is an important conversation starting to happen here, and not just around free culture and prosecutorial abuse. How can we steer this conversation without reinforcing the stereotypes and stigmas around suicide?

3 Responses to “RIP Aaron. You are not alone”

  1. January 16th, 2013 | 4:21 pm


    Thanks for the great links.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about hackers and suicide over the last few days. Three colleagues have died over the last 18 months (Len Sassaman, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, Aaron Swartz).

    I don’t have a plan, but I want to be part of a solution.

    What do you think next steps are?

  2. Jonah
    January 24th, 2013 | 1:01 pm

    See also:

    I am hopeful that hacker community can offer more in the way of support than a suicide hotline number and a referral to the psychiatric establishment.

  3. Clay
    January 24th, 2013 | 5:17 pm

    What we can offer is care. The least important part about that post is the referral bit; the most important part is the advice before the referral bit: “Reach out. Ask. Listen. Take casual mentions of suicide seriously. Be persistent about checking on someone.”

    It’s in line with hacker’s expectations that there be some ‘solution’ to this problem, but the solution isn’t one amenable to organized action. The solution, the most important one, is to think of the people you know who might kill themselves, and to keep connected to them.

    This is hand-craft work, but it’s the kind of support that matters.

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