Depression and Geeks

Jan 15 2013 Published by under People, Personal, Society

Since this weekend, when the news of Aaron Swartz's suicide, there's been a lot of discussion of the goverments ridiculous pursuit of him, and of the fact that he suffered from depression. I can't contribute anything new about his prosecution. It was despicable, ridiculous, and sadly, all too typical of how our government works.

But on the topic of depression, I want to chime in. A good friend of mine wrote a post on his own blog about depression in the tech/geek community., which I feel like I have to respond to.

Benjy, who wrote the post, is a great guy who I have a lot of respect for. I don't intend this to be an attack on him. But I've seen a lot of similar comments, and I think that they're built on a very serious mistake.

Benjy argues that the mathematical/scientific/logical mindset of a geek (my word, not his) makes us more prone to depression:

Someone whose toolkit for dealing with the world consists of logic and reason, ideals and abstractions, may have particularly weak defenses against this trickster disease.

You realize that it’s lying to you, that there are treatments, that that things aren’t objectively as bad as they feel. But you know, on some level deeper than logic, that there is no point, no hope and no future. And to encounter, maybe for the first time, the hard limits of rationality, to realize that there’s a part of your mind that can override the logical world view that is the core of your identity, may leave you feeling particularly helpless and hopeless.

You can’t rationalize depression away, a fact that people who’ve never suffered from it find hard to comprehend. But if someone you care about is struggling with it, and it’s likely that someone is, you can help them find a new way to access their mind.

Tell them that you care about them and appreciate them and are glad to have them in your life. Show them that you enjoy being around them and that you love them. And above all, spend time with them. Give them glimpses of an alternate future, one in which they are secure, happy and loved, tear away the lies that depression needs in order to survive, and in that sunlight it will wither.

Most of what Benjy wrote, I agree with completely. The problem that I have with it is that I think that parts of it are built on the assumption that our conscious reasoning is a part of the cause of depression. If geeks are more prone to suffering from depression because the way that our minds work, that means that the way that we make decisions and interpret the world is a part of why we suffer from this disease. The implication that too many people will draw from that is that we just need to decide to make different decisions, and the disease will go away. But it won't - because depression isn't a choice.

The thing that you always need to remember about depression - and which Benjy mentions - is that depression is not something which you can reason with. Depression isn't a feeling. It's not a way of thinking, or a way of viewing the world. It's not something that you can choose not to suffer from. It's a part of how your brain works.

The thing that anyone who suffers from depression needs to know is that it's a disease, and that it's treatable. It doesn't matter if your friends are nice to you. It doesn't matter if you know that they love you. That kind of thinking - that kind of reasoning about depression - is part of the fundamental trap of depression.

Depression is a disease of the brain, and it affects your mind - it affects your self in a terrible way. No amount of support from your friends and family, no amount of positive reinforcement can change that. Believing that emotional support can help a depressed person is part of the problem, because it's tied to the all-too-common stigma of mental illness: that you're only suffering because you're too weak or too helpless to get over it.

You don't just get over a mental illness like depression, any more than you get over diabetes. As a friend or loved one of a person with diabetes, being kind, showing your love for them doesn't help unless you get them to get treatment.

I'm speakaing from experience. I've been there. I spent years being miserable. It nearly wrecked my marriage. My wife was as supportive and loving as anyone could dream of. But I couldn't see it. I couldn't see anything.

The experience of depression in different for different people. But for me, it was like the world had gone flat. I wasn't sad - I was just dead inside. Nothing could have any impact on me. It's a hard thing to explain, but looking back, it's like the world had gone two-dimensional and black-and-white. Eventually, I was reading something in some magazine about depression, and it talked about that flat feeling, and I realized that maybe, maybe that was what was wrong with me.

When I started taking antidepressants, it was almost frightening, because it changed the world so much. ANtidepressants didn't make me happy. In fact, for a while, they made me very sad, because I was realizing how awful I'd been treating my wife and daughter. But they made me feel things again. A few weeks after I started taking them, I realized that I was noticing colors. I hadn't done that for years. It wasn't that I couldn't see colors when I was depressed, but they didn't mean anything.

Antidepressants aren't a panacaea. They don't work for everyone. But there are treatments that can help. The way to defeat depression is to do something that changes the way the brain is functioning. For some people, the exercise of therapy can do that. For others, it's medication. For still others, exercise. The key is to get to someone who understands the disease, and who can help you find what will work for your brain.

My point here is that when we're talking about depression, we need to realize that most of the time, no one is at fault. People don't suffer from depression because they did something wrong, or because they're weak, or because they're flawed. People don't suffer from depression because their friends and family are inadequate. Depression is a disease - a treatable, chronic disease. It needs to be recognized, and it needs to be treated.

In my case, my depression wasn't caused by my wife and daughter. It wasn't their fault, and it wasn't my fault. No amount of support, love, and appreciation could have helped, because the nature of my depression meant that I couldn't see those things. The only thing that anyone could have done for me is recognized that I was suffering from depression, and pushed me to get treatment sooner.

If someone you know is suffering from depression, then they need help. But the help they need isn't any amount of love or appreciation. It isn't instilling any kind of hope, because depression kills hope in your brain. The thing that you can do to help is to help them get the treatment that they need.

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Mental Illness and Responsibility

Jan 10 2011 Published by under Personal

There's something came up in the comments of the post about Mr. Tangent 19 that I meant to turn into a post of its own. Unfortunately, I never quite got around to it. In light of recent events, and the talk about the man who attempted to kill congresswoman Giffords, I think it's important to talk about this kind of thing, so I'm resurrecting the in-progress post now.

Quite frequently when I write a post about a particularly odd crank, someone will either comment or email me saying something like the following:

How fine a line is it between being a crank and being mentally ill, how do we differentiate between the two, and how should we individually treat those separate cases?

The gist of this line of reasoning is: the target of this post is obviously mentally ill, so why are you being mean picking on them?

When I look at things like this, I’ve got a rather blunt answer: why does it matter?

In fact, I've got an even better blunt answer: Why should it matter?

Over the last few years I’ve learned, from personal experience, what mental illness really means. Personally, I suffer from chronic depression (managed, quite well fortunately, through medication); and I've also had a lot of trouble dealing with pretty severe social anxiety. It's not a lot of fun. But it's also not relevant to anything I do at work, to anything I write on my blog, to any political or social or religious activity that I participate in.

I’ve learned from some of my friends about bipolar disorder and dissociative disorder. And I’ve got a cousin who is pretty much completely incapacitated by schizophrenia.

I've learned a couple of things from those experiences.

First: being mentally isn't a particularly big deal. There's a good chance that you know a lot of mentally ill people, and if you knew who they were, you'd probably be amazed by just how normal they seem.

Second: there is a terrible stigma associated with mental illness. That stigma is huge, and it colors everything about how we view mental illness and people with mental illness. The way that we look at someone mentally ill and baby them – say that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for what they say and do in public – that’s part of the stigma! And it's not anything close to benign. As almost anyone with any kind of mental illness can tell you, revealing your illness to your employer or coworkers can completely change the way that you're treated. You can go from being a go-to person on top of the world, to be an absolutely untrustworthy nothing overnight if the wrong person finds out. Nothing changes, except their perceptions: but because of the stigma that says that mentally ill people are irrational and untrustworthy, suddenly everything you say, everything you do, can suddenly become questionable and untrustworthy. After all, you're crazy. (Yes, I speak from bitter experience here.)

Virtually all mentally ill people function as part of society, without people around them even knowing about their illness. But the instant you find out that someone is mentally ill, the instinctive reaction is to say: “This person is mentally ill, therefore they aren’t responsible for anything they say or do” – and as a direct corollary of that: “I can’t trust this person with anything important”. I've seen this quite directly in person.

It's total bullshit. Most mentally ill people are just as responsible, trustworthy, intelligent, and reasonable as people who aren't mentally ill. Even many people with schizophrenia – one of the most debilitating, hardest to treat mental illnesses out there – can be fully functional, trustworthy, and rational people. I'll guarantee that every one of you reading this knows someone with a mental illness, and there's a reasonable chance that there's someone you know who has schizophrenia, but you don't know it, because they seem perfectly normal.

The thing is, we could know someone mentally ill for years and never notice anything odd. But for most people, the instant we find out that they’re mentally ill, our attitude changes. Suddenly they're not trustworthy or responsible: they're crazy.

If you’re well enough to interact with society, you deserve to be treated as a full member of society. And that includes the negative aspects of being a member of society as well as the positive ones.

In terms of that past post: the author of that piece of crankery is a practicing physician. Perhaps he is mentally ill. But apparently he functions quite well in his day to day life as a doctor – well enough to be able to practice medicine; well enough to be able to make-or-death decisions about how the medical care of his patients. He deserves the respect of being taken seriously. He doesn’t deserve to be pushed off into a bin of crazy people who should be dismissed as not responsible fdor their actions. If he wants to put his ideas forward, they should be treated just like anyone else’s – whether he’s mentally ill or just stupidly arrogant and ignorant doesn’t matter in the least. It’s none of your or my business whether he’s mentally ill. He’s a responsible adult. And that’s all that we need to know.

The only time that mental illness matters is when someone has something that they can't control. And that's very rare. Most mental illnesses don't affect our ability to be reliable, rational, trustworthy, functional members of society. We're not incapacitated. We're not crazy. We've got just got a chronic illness.

To connect this to the politics of the moment: lots of folks are pointing out that if you look at Giffords' shooter, at his troubles in school, at his writings in various places on the net, he's clearly mentally ill, so clearly no one is responsible for what happened.

I'm not a psychiatrist, obviously. Based on his writings, I'd guess that there's a fair chance that he's schizophrenic. And that doesn't matter.

He's a murderer. He carefully put together and executed a careful plan for a multiple murder. From everything that we've seen and heard, he knew and understood exactly what he was doing. The fact that he's mentally ill doesn't change his culpability.

Don't hold the millions of people who suffer from mental illness responsible for the horrific actions deliberately taken by one individual. And don't say that this one horrible individual isn't responsible for what he did.

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