NYU Professor and author Clay Shirky has written a heartfelt article calling on people to take care of one another and look out for those amongst us who are prone to depression.
Looking at the recent suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz from a different angle, Shirky explains that Aaron’s legacy isn’t just about continuing his work for a free and open internet, but that we should also remember him by taking care of those in our community who may be suicidal.
He begins the article by talking about two suicides of people he knew, a close friend of his named Will Morrell and Ilya Zhitomirskiy – a student at NYU who was instrumental in starting a privacy-friendly version of Facebook. He does not detail why Morrell took his own life, but partially attributes Zhitomirskiy’s suicide to the pressures of running a startup.
The majority of the articles about Swartz since his suicide have focused primarily on the felony charges he was facing as a reason for his suicide. It is easy to see why; Swartz was looking at 35 years in prison and millions in fines for what many would say was a “victimless crime”. The prosecution against him screams of injustice, of overreach and overzealous behavior. It is not surprising that people are angry at his treatment by the U.S. Justice system.
But Shirky argues that we also need to bear in mind that Aaron was depressed and that part of his legacy should be to remind us to take of others who are prone to depression.
He writes that it is easy to focus on proximate causes when thinking about suicide. Aaron had a loving family, a large support network and a lot going for him, if it wasn’t for the prosecution against him, you could argue that he would not have taken his own life. However Shirky argues that there is more to it than that, because some people won’t take their own lives no matter how bad it gets and he cites Bernie Madoff as an example. Madoff destroyed everything he owned and currently sits in a jail cell with almost zero chance of ever being a free man again. But he did not commit suicide, Shirky writes “because he isn’t the kind of person who kills himself.”
He urges people to look out for the warning signs amongst severely depressed friends, colleagues and family members, warning signs like; mood swings, persistent withdrawal, previous attempts, family history and bringing it up in conversation. He said people should ask themselves the question, “whose suicide would sadden but not surprise me” and make a conscientious effort to be there for those people.
“Reach out,” he says, “Listen. Take casual mentions of suicide seriously. Be persistent about checking on someone. Don’t try to cure or fix anyone; that’s out of your league. Just tell them you care, and point them to professional resources.”
Shirky states that it is important to remember Aaron by supporting free culture and fighting against prosecutorial abuse, but his legacy also tells us how important it is to take care of each other.
Shirky concludes the article by stating:
“We need to remember Aaron by thinking of those among us at risk of dying as he did. Most of them won’t be martyrs — most of them will be people like Ilya and Will — but their deaths will be just as awful. And, as with every cause Aaron stood for, we know how to take on this problem. What we need is the will to act.”