[Wikimedia-l] Aaron Swartz Community Impact

Gayle Karen Young gyoung at wikimedia.org
Mon Jan 14 19:13:49 UTC 2013

*I sent this to the staff list and am sending it to wikimedia-l now as
well. I didn’t know Aaron Swartz, but many friends and colleagues that I
respect and admire were influenced and impacted, by both his life and
death.  I’m sad for those who knew him, and I carry the sense that the
world is a worse place for his absence.

I’m worried that other talented, smart people who see what is wrong with
this world and try to change it against overwhelming odds will see this as
one more thing that tips the scales towards the “this isn’t worth it” or “I
can’t exist like this”, slide a little further down the slippery slope into
their own abyss. I’m worried about people in pain and confusion, who may
not have the people in their lives who are able to handle explicit or
implicit expressions of pain and grief, who may feel isolated or sad and
not able to reach out for help, or don’t believe they can be helped.

I started my career studying depression treatment and prevention because
I’ve seen what it does to people - whether they’re beautifully ordinary
people you’d meet on the street or whether they’re great shining lights
whose loss makes you want to rail at an unfair universe -  and because I
have my own history of major depressive episodes and my own sit-down with a
bottle of pills one dark night and I’ve grieved suicide in my own family
system and lived with its consequences. For the living, different kinds of
death leave different kinds of wounds, and I think suicide leaves the most
jagged, livid ones. If you’ve had a loved one pass from illness or old age,
the wound is just different than that of suicide.  As an illness,
depression is painful and inherently isolating, and it makes people feel
terrible about themselves - and isolation is a major factor for suicide.
 Depression slams blinders on possibility, when people most need to be able
to see the options and paths before and around them, and when people need
to have access.   The state inherently robs someone of their ability - and
even of the belief that help is possible and available.

My favorite author
this topic, Kay Redfield Jamison, wrote “When people are suicidal, their
thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their
mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain.
The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful
beyond solace.”

The factors that generally lead to depression and suicide are complex,
though people keep trying to find the one tipping point thing, the one
cause.   At the end of the day, death forces the living to sit with the
unknowns. I think anecdotally that if you live long enough, you develop a
certain resiliency and a greater capacity - but that’s if you get to that
point in the first place.

So here’s your public service announcement - communities where there is
exposure to suicide via media/internet carry greater risks. It’s called suicide
contagion <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00031539.htm>. As a
community, it’s worth it to be informed and to be extra care-full of those
we interact with,  and to take increased care of your mental health. (Take
a walk. Call a friend.)

Major risk factors
suicide include mental disorders, especially mood disorders, hopelessness,
impulsive/aggressive tendencies, family history or previous attempts,
physical illness, job/financial loss, relationship loss, lack of social
support and isolation, stigma associated with asking for help, cultural
beliefs, and exposure to others who have committed suicide (via internet as
a form of transmission).

If someone you know is suicidal (and especially if they have a plan), get
help. Don’t try to talk them out of suicide. Don’t tell them their family
will miss them or that they’ll be a huge loss, even though both of those
are true. Listen to them. Tell them what they’re going through is
temporary, even if they’ve lived with it for awhile, and that It’s
treatable. It will pass. And for the love of anything you consider holy,
get professional help. They’ll often believe they can’t be helped. If it’s
you, please ask for it. I will find you help. You are not alone. If you
have or had suicidal thoughts, you’re not crazy. It’s okay - or at least,
it’s not yet but it will be.  It’s a signal flare that it’s time to get aid.

Rilke wrote, “I am not yet wise in my grief so this great darkness makes me
small” and I’ve thought often of that line because I needed it to remind me
that I had to learn to be wiser, especially in my grief. I think the other
thing to remember are the words of Mary Oliver, that “To live in this
world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold
it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the
time comes to let it go, to let it go.” For the living, grieving Aaron and
letting him go without making more or less than the fullness of his life
and passing, is part of our individual and collective task.*


Gayle Karen K. Young
Chief Talent and Culture Officer
Wikimedia Foundation
p. 415.839.6885 x6691
c. 415.310.8416

More information about the Wikimedia-l mailing list