MediaFile

After Aaron Swartz

By Jocelyn Sze
January 18, 2013

Brilliant young hackers, striving to build tools to change the world, are killing themselves. Just last week: Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and fierce open access activist, took his life at 26. There have been other high-profile suicides in the tech world in recent years: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, co-founder of the distributed social network Diaspora, dead at 22. Len Sassaman, a highly-regarded cypherpunk who believed in cryptography and privacy as tools of freedom, dead at 31. Dan Haubert, co-founder of the Y-Combinator funded startup Ticketstumbler, dead at 25. If these young men were like the 100 people who kill themselves in this country every day, the biggest factor contributing to their deaths was likely under-treated depression.

We can readily come up with hypotheses as to why depression is a problem in the tech world. It’s a culture defined by ruthless pressure, high stakes, and risky gambles. Often hiding behind pseudo-anonymity, lightning fast criticisms are released online with bullet speed. Then there’s the “thrashing duck” syndrome: to survive in the startup ecosystem you have to puff up your chest and show only how smoothly you’re gliding through the water; you don’t show how furiously your legs are kicking and struggling underneath. There’s also the hero archetype of the lone hacker: he’s coding through the night, living on red bulls, sleeping on a couch at AOL to save money, not thinking about short-term wealth, and surely not thinking about health, be it physical or mental.

As a clinical psychologist married to a hacker, I do not find this to be okay. On a human level, there is widespread pain and suffering lying silent and unaddressed. On a societal level, we are losing brilliant young minds, activists and role models with so much left to contribute to the world.

I am not saying depression and suicide are necessarily higher in this community compared to other populations; there isn’t enough data to say that. The rub to me is this: one of the most effective and scientifically-backed treatments for depression appears to be an incredible fit for hackers, and yet few people know about it. It’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and it has some of its origins in computer science.

Born out of the cognitive revolution of the 1950s, a key idea within cognitive psychology is that by studying how computers input, store, and process information, it becomes possible to make testable inferences about the nature of the human mind. Cognitive behavioral therapists (most typically clinical psychologists with research backgrounds) mirror hackers in how they see the world and approach problems. They share the same core values: an emphasis on problem solving as efficiently and effectively as possible, gathering data to test out what works and what doesn’t, using logic to debug a system, and implementing transparent methods that others can understand and replicate as opposed simply to putting your faith in a “magic black box.” CBT and hackers are long lost kindred spirits, yearning to be reunited.

To give a concrete example, a core concept within CBT is that when human beings are in high distress, our amygdala (the emotional/fear part of our brain) goes into high alert and overrides our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain that uses logic to solve problems). In the midst of this emotional “hijack,” we are prone to hopeless thoughts (“my problem is unsolvable”) and a number of thinking errors that magnify our distress. As Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh wrote about his recovery from suicidal depression, “The reality is it’s never as bad as the insanity you’ve created in your head.” Through a process called cognitive restructuring, you work with your therapist to evaluate critically the thoughts that are contributing to your depression, similar to the process of debugging or critically reviewing your own code.

Given the striking overlap, why haven’t hackers found their way back to CBT? For starters, therapy has an image problem. There’s an assumption out there that therapy is some foofy practice of “self discovery” in which you talk about your mother for years on end and somehow magically end up better. Newsflash: therapy has made some remarkable advancements since the time of Freud.

To be sure, therapists – of which I’m one – have some significant hurdles when it comes to marketing ourselves. No one wants to Yelp their shrink. Due to the stigma that still shrouds mental illness, there’s no public and transparent method of rating therapists and personally sharing about what’s worked and not worked for people. But to buy into therapy, programmers need the hard data.

The data we do have is a large body of research showing that CBT is as effective as medication when treating mild to severe depression, and superior to medication in preventing relapse of depression. Not to mention it’s side-effect free. 

Unfortunately, disseminating this knowledge remains a challenge. Academic and clinical psychologists have an ethical responsibility (as well as financial constraints) precluding them from pouring the billions of dollars into glib advertisements that we see pharmaceutical companies doing with such gusto. That aside, we need to be doing a far better job at explaining our methods so that there is greater public awareness about this tool that can quite literally save lives. We need to unleash our data from their academic ivory towers.

So psychologists, let’s fight to make our methods public and transparent, and let’s do so in an ethical and responsible manner. No blue birds singing and cartoon characters magically getting better like we see on the Zoloft commercials. Consumers, inform yourselves. Read up on evidence-based treatments for depression and other mental health problems. Share what’s worked in recovering from depression. Let’s use the Internet for what it’s good at: spreading knowledge.

PHOTO: Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. Internet activist and programmer Swartz, who helped create an early version of RSS and later played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill in Congress, has died at age 26, an apparent suicide, New York authorities said January 13, 2013. REUTERS/Noah Berger

Comments
24 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I’d rather see depression go undertreated and we lose a few great minds to suicide, rather than it be overtreated and we create another mass murderer.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive
 

It’s really tragic… I see a significant challenge in getting these young folks to self-diagnose their symptoms as depression. We need a paradigm shift in how we perceive mental health: too often the problems are incorrectly associated with something psychosomatic. Instead they are potentially as severe as a heart attack.

Posted by zodie777 | Report as abusive
 

Cry me a river.
How about the thousands of middle and lower class Americans, disabled Americans, and seniors, who kill themselves because they can’t find a job, they have no home, they have no money, they have no healthcare, they have no food, and they have no future or hope?
And I am supposed to feel sorry for the young well off Silicone Valley people who have everything, but are still not happy?
Well off spoiled kids are at the bottom of my sympathy list.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive
 

I often find it difficult to explain how modern evidence-based psychological treatment differs from the vague Freudian notions many people have about it. This article uses metaphors of computer coding to unveil how cognitive behavioral therapy can attack and de-bug our problems and relieve depression.

Posted by Esperando28 | Report as abusive
 

I loved the code and detailed explanation you gave in the longer version of this article:
http://cbtsanfrancisco.com/cbt-is-for-ha ckers/

I think that therapy would feel more approachable if people had a sense of what therapy actually is–you did an excellent job of breaking down exactly what it is we DO in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Posted by enparks | Report as abusive
 

Not trying to convert anyone, but some approaches to meditation also work very well for a lot of tech people, and do many of the same things as cognitive therapy; mostly just putting things in perspective. As the name implies, the Buddhist Geeks website is a good place to look for tech-compatible approaches.

Posted by DorjePismo | Report as abusive
 

Your PhD doesn’t make you an expert in Anthropology or Molecular Biology, neither does it make you an official on the human spirit

Posted by whitewidow | Report as abusive
 

Dr Sze, when you used the term ‘hacker’ to describe these victims of suicide, you are more then correct then you know.

Depression is the clinical cause. But today, these hackers are representative of the state of Silicon Valley ‘tech’ in large measures. These people tried to build, using various tech tools, something nobody asked for. They are new, but they are also quite useless. And even when the products produced are used, they are used as trivial pursuit, a time-waster. The hackers tried to squeeze milk from stone, and ended up in depression so severe it ended their lives.

Aaron Swartz is one perfect example. Basically, he stole other people’s content without authorization, under the utopian delusion of ‘open access’. Why he thought he could get away with stealing? Tech savvy but stupid. If he is truly tech savvy, he would build something truly original and useful, and will sell it. But he couldn’t.

Posted by TomKi | Report as abusive
 

i think you missed that other places are thriving. like shanghai or guangzhou. the brilliant minds you mentioned should all be in china. silicon valley is dead. if you are in a dead place you die too. go to where the action is. to see an young person go out the door of life the easy way is sad. but not the end of us all. go west boy.

Posted by venturecapital | Report as abusive
 

I read of an estimated 30 million people with mental problems in this country. All with access to guns, under the present “sacrosanct 2nd Amendment to the Constitution”. Of course, there is no breakdown of the severity of their individual conditions. So we are left with the chronic question of who will be the next one to self-destruct, perhaps taking 20 or 30 other people with him. Yes, there are some people who are brilliant in their respective fields with mental problems, depression among them. And I agree that reaching these people should be high on the list of to-dos. Might the companies these people associate with be made conscious enough of the problem to have an active outreach program? Certainly literature through various media should be made available. In the meantime, rational gun control should be created and enforced.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive
 

Huh? Aaron, at age 26, was facing 50+ years in prison and a $4 million dollars fine for illegally downloading scholarly files as an act of civil disobedience.. and you think his problem was he didn’t seek the right psychological treatment to deal with it?

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

Ms. Sze, I suffer from prolonged depression, part of the PTSD I suffer from after Vietnam. However, having gone through major drug therapy, which left me pretty zombie-like, I underwent CT. It worked to a very large degree.

Many times I contemplated suicide and attempted it twice, both thank goodness without completion. It was then that I began going to a therapist who used CT. And I discovered, through that and group therapy, that I wasn’t alone in my feelings. In your article, you fail to mention group, which also helps, and helps more than a lot of therapists, a large minority, think.

I still take medications, although much less than before due to a Psychiatrist who believes in a whole person therapy, to wit seeing a therapist, group therapy and as few medications as possible. I like the treatment and my therapist is one who definitely believes in Cognitive Therapy. In fact, when I have had to change therapists, thank goodness only four times in the last 25+ years, with two for ten years, and short stints with two more, i believe strongly in your theories.

Keep up with promoting CT. It does work. Sure there are medications involved much of the time, but with the right kinds of therapy along with the medications, a person can and will live a long, useful life. But please include group therapy as part of the process. It definitely helps more than most think and is as painless as taking an asprin for a headache.

Posted by goodbyemoney | Report as abusive
 

Ms. Sze, I suffer from prolonged depression, part of the PTSD I suffer from after Vietnam. However, having gone through major drug therapy, which left me pretty zombie-like, I underwent CT. It worked to a very large degree.

Many times I contemplated suicide and attempted it twice, both thank goodness without completion. It was then that I began going to a therapist who used CT. And I discovered, through that and group therapy, that I wasn’t alone in my feelings. In your article, you fail to mention group, which also helps, and helps more than a lot of therapists, a large minority, think.

I still take medications, although much less than before due to a Psychiatrist who believes in a whole person therapy, to wit seeing a therapist, group therapy and as few medications as possible. I like the treatment and my therapist is one who definitely believes in Cognitive Therapy. In fact, when I have had to change therapists, thank goodness only four times in the last 25+ years, with two for ten years, and short stints with two more, i believe strongly in your theories.

Keep up with promoting CT. It does work. Sure there are medications involved much of the time, but with the right kinds of therapy along with the medications, a person can and will live a long, useful life. But please include group therapy as part of the process. It definitely helps more than most think and is as painless as taking an asprin for a headache.

Posted by goodbyemoney | Report as abusive
 

Good article! I would like to add that my geek had a very low Vitamin D level which new research shows can lead to depression. Nearly every geek I know spend too much time being a “cave dweller” and rarely receives the daily blessings of the sun! Sunlite (especially before the 11 am hour) is very healthy and wards off depression… just ask anyone who lives in the far polar regions in the midst of Winter.

Posted by Veronica.art | Report as abusive
 

another thing you can do is, stop working with computers……….do something with your hands.

and get away from the culture.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive
 

Print this on SlashDot or CNet tech news (techie sites) and it would be more affective.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

Second song at songlobby.com is better off dead than in prison.

Posted by Jose3 | Report as abusive
 

Swartz most likely committed suicide not because of depression, but because he faced a very long federal prison sentence and crippling fines. His life was effectively over. Sometimes suicide can be a rational choice.

I would also not call any garden-variety software developer a “hacker” either. What Swartz did – breaking into secure facilities at MIT, and then breaking into their computer networks – was hacking. Coding a social network or working at a startup based around cheap event tickets is not hacking. Hacking is illegal and leads to prison sentences and fines. See above.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive
 

Perhaps the problem is that all of these “brainiacs” are overlooking the fact that regardless of how smart you are, and how well-developed your ideas for a business are, that you are subject to the whims of the market. Businesses and ideas are not developed in a vacuum, and no one controls the market in which you seek to exist.

There is very little written about the start-ups who blow through millions of dollars of capital, only to see their “business” dissolve due to the inability to monetize the model or secure market share sufficient to sustain it. That’s reality of every business,regardless ifone is built on a technology platform or not.

Perhaps if the market was approached from the perspective that you have a 10% chance of success, and that the odds are about 5% that anyone will want to acquire your successful business (whether or not at a premium); or that in five years (if you make it that far) it is still not going to be worth anything, young people might be better able to handle both success and failure. And, abject failure is an option regardless of one’s best efforts.

Secondly, running any business is hard work, and often requires that decisions be made that are very contrary to what any single individual would “like” to do. In a era where young people want to share their most intimate thoughts, sacrifice any privacy, wrapped in a sense of self-worth that is well beyond reality, it’s very difficult to admit that you either do not know what to do, or acknowledge that you are failing.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

Swartz killed himself while under ridiculous Federal indictments for violating one of the most openly corrupt areas of law in the USA — so-called “intellectual property” law. He essentially was going to be imprisoned for the rest of his life.

American copyright laws discourage invention, art and the enjoyment of the same by ordinary people. They do this by allowing “rights” to intellectual inventions to be seized, virtually in perpetuity, by financial cartels which have done absolutely nothing to create the “property” involved. Why?? Because they pay cash money from their share of the take with Government officials responsible for protecting the public. And the officials in turn create totally unprecedented, in the USA, “rights” for these financiers.

Copyright and patent laws exist to protect and encourage artistic creation and invention, especially for the benefit of the creators. Instead, these laws seldom benefit the creators and their families. They have created a new class of rentier who buys and sells ideas and artistic creation like so many pork bellies. These people stifle creation rather than encourage it. They restrict public access rather than promote it. They are directly responsible for the loss of Swartz to the country, they and their bought and paid for lackeys in the Federal Government.

Time to severely limit the transferability of copyrights and patents and to greatly reduce rights available to “secondary” owners. It is also necessary to greatly reduce available protected time on transferred “intellectual property” and to greatly restrict renewals of such rights.

And it would not hurt to strongly stiffen penalties for both paying and receiving bribes (“contributions”) by Federal officials.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

“As a clinical psychologist married to a hacker”

HAHAHAHAHAHA

Posted by DougAnderson | Report as abusive
 

I think the world would be a lot better off if all of these silicon bozos were to bump themselves off. What have they done except discover new ways of extracting time and money from people? Good riddance to them all.

Posted by summarex | Report as abusive
 

High intelligence has always been a two edged sword. Couples with a learned anti-social behavior, it increases the chances of mental instability. For the majority of programmers today their job is to interpret imperfect human requirements with contradicting evidence and translate that into computer logic that doesn’t understand “sometimes”. This I would bet exacerbates the issue for them. Historically though, I think the intellectuals of the world are in far better shape than ever before. If you think about it, having an IQ over 125 most likely got you killed or jailed for the last 2500 years. Think about the Khmer Rouge as late as the 1970′s. I think for those intellectuals, it is harder to adapt and be accepted in the local society than it is for their opposite, the mentally impaired. About a year ago I was talking with a employee of a client while she was having a smoke. She was telling me about how she “hated” people that “Always pass tests with A’s and say it was easy for them.”. I let it roll off pretty well.
A friend asked me to watch an episode of a television show called “House” about a Doctor practicing diagnostic medicine. He had a patient or patient boy friend, I forget which, that he recognized from the back cover of a book on advanced mathematics. Yet he was a delivery man for UPS or some such company. The doctor asked for an explanation and the man said he had been taking a certain medication that basically reduced his IQ by like 50 points. Dumfounded, the doctor asked why he would do such thing. The man then explained that he wanted a girl friend, to be able to hold a conversation with her, and to fit into society with her. He was able to do it with the pills and thought it was an excellent trade-off and would not stop doing it. If only there were such a pill!
I guess what I’m saying is I think I understand the issue of this opinion piece, but I don’t think individual therapy is the answer to it. Perhaps just better understanding of the vast diversity of humans that are out there ( so you can navigate around the incompatible ones).

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive
 

My condolences to the family of Aaron Swartz and all who have lost loved ones to depression and suicide. I have to wonder, honestly, not just about the tech industry but about the economy as a whole. I’m seeing more and more people turning to freelancing, for example, in an attempt to make work. No matter what niche, things can be very lonely and people who were once bubbly and personable are becoming quiet, withdrawn, and moody. I have several friends who are working multiple part-time jobs to get by, and one has developed an alcohol dependency (thankfully, one she acknowledges and is seeking help for). Still, there are others I know who do tech and design work who struggle with depression and alcoholism who know they have problems but – like you said – shun the idea of any type of therapy or help. I wonder what can be done – by you as a group of professionals or by us as loving family members and friends – to convince these people that real help is out there?

Posted by DonaCollins | Report as abusive
 

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