Clay Shirky: "Remembering Aaron by taking care of each other"

Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky writes about one of the imperatives he believes the death of Aaron Swartz should bring to life: "We need to take care of the people in our community who are depressed," he writes.

Suicide is not hard to understand, not intellectually anyway. It is, as Jeff Atwood says, the ultimate in ragequitting. But for most of us, it is hard to understand emotionally.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent a lot of time with people at risk of suicide, and so have become an amateur scholar of that choice. When I first started reading about it, I thought of it as the last stop on a road of stress and upset — when things get bad, people suffer, and when they get really bad, they take their own lives.

And what I learned was that this view is wrong. Suicide is no more a heightened reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than depression is just being extra sad. Most of us won’t kill ourselves, no matter how bad things get. The common thread among people who commit suicide is that they are suicidal.

Read more: Remembering Aaron by taking care of each other (Clay Shirky blog)


  1. It’s worth noting that not everyone who is depressed is a suicide risk. There are multiple kinds of clinical depression, and multiple ways of coping (or failing to cope) with them.

    And it’s worth noting that one of the reasons new users of antidepressants need to be carefully monitored is that sometimes all that’s been keeping them from suicide is that the depression has robbed them of the volition needed to take that action.

    Outside of that, the sentence “Suicide is no more a heightened reaction to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than depression is just being extra sad.” strikes me as spot-on.

  2. Looking at how much medication is being consumed for depression in the US, I have to ask, which is more likely: Millions of people suffer from a brain imbalance that makes it impossible to pursue happiness without chemical help, or that depression is a sign that we’re doing it wrong.

    “Dysfunctional political system, endemic corruption, economy in the toilet? Here’s some drugs to make you not mind so much.”

     I see a close parallel with the way livestock are given antibiotics to mitigate their inhumane crowding: and the motivation is identical. Factory farmed people are weaker for having come from the plant.

    Dissuading someone from suicide is what happens when the neglect and abuse has gone on far too long already. The bar really should be set higher than that. 

    _The Lives of Others_ depicted a suicide that had political ramifications, and I see a ghastly parallel with Aaron Swartz. We need to be able to talk about just how bad things have gotten before we have any hope of improving them.

    1. The opposite of clinical depression is not “happiness”.  People with depression do not take medication and/or enter into therapy to become happy; they do so to become able to function.

      1. Why would anyone want to “function”? It sounds like something that a small cog does inside a big machine.
        I still struggle with depression. I know how to stay alive. If medications could help me, I would take them. It’s a bigger problem than that.

        1. >>Why would anyone want to “function”?

          Basic self-care comes to mind (getting out of bed, dressed, fed).  Oh, and working. Moving on from there I come up with things like engage in hobbies, spend time with friends and family, walk the dogs, investigate new things…ie, function like a human being. 

          1. those things sound  a lot like the pursuit of happiness to me.

            Edit: I’m not criticizing any individual’s choice to take antidepressants. But the cumulative effect of millions of such choices say something really awful about our world.

  3. Ok, look, this is all very well, but it seems a tad glib.  For example, right now I’m in horrible debt and I have no retirement savings.  As long as I have my good job, I can tread water.  I am not currently suicidal.  However, one of these days I know I will be forced to retire (hopefully not for many years yet) when that happens, I have the choice of being and old man hunting through dumpsters for my next meal, or a straight razor and a warm bath.  I plan on the second.

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