THE BLOG

What We Can Learn From Aaron Swartz

01/15/2013 11:24 am 11:24:11 | Updated Mar 16, 2013

Imagine being kidnapped by terrorists for no known reason. You are thrown into a dark, cold dungeon where you are tortured day and night with no end in sight. You are helpless and hopeless -- living -- but in excruciating pain. Everything is dark, and there is no way to escape.

That is what severe depression looks like.

Then, going back to our dungeon scenario, you notice a light. First it is dim and then it grows brighter. It is a light that is shining down and illuminating a way to get out. The way to get out is not the one you want, but it is the only way to escape. There is no other way out except through this one door. It is your only hope. It is your only way to escape the torture, the anguish, the suffering, the misery.

For the over 30,000 Americans who commit suicide each year, this is a familiar scenario. Their world is bleak. Everything appears dark. It is like being trapped in a hole buried in the ground so deep, you cannot see anything. You can see no escape -- except to end your life.

The number one predictor of suicide is not necessarily depression, although many people with depression (such as Aaron Swartz) do end their lives. Hopelessness, the conviction that things will never get better, is a stronger predictor.

Distress is a term used in psychology that refers to pretty much any emotion you don't want to feel: depression, helplessness, hopelessness, worthlessness, fear, or anxiety. We measure distress from 0 (no distress at all) to 10 (the most stressed you could ever be). Whenever our distress level climbs to a 7 or higher, we lose our ability to think rationally. We see things in a more negative, catastrophic manner.

Picture a horse in Central Park going for a stroll. Before the owner puts anything on the horse's head, he can see everything around him. This is how we can view the world and our ability to handle the world when our distress is at a "4" or lower.

But when our distress level gets to a 5, it is like the owner of that horse putting blinders over the animal's eyes. We can no longer "see" all of our options. Our vision starts to narrow. And the higher the distress level, the more narrow the ability to see any options. Get to a level of 9 or 10, and there is usually only one "option" that you perceive.

Extremely high levels of distress account for why people who want to lose weight still eat what they rationally know they should not. It is why people with anger management problems hit their spouses, even when they rationally do not want to. It is also why people kill themselves.

Life is and can be incredibly stressful. If we do not have the tools we need to handle that stress, our emotions can get the best of us. When our distress level becomes elevated, rational thinking (being able to clearly see all of our options) ceases to exist.

It is time we realized that what we call "mental health issues" are not confined to just a few "crazy" people. Mental health issues can -- and do -- affect everyone.

Distress causes or exacerbates numerous physical illnesses. Distress can lead to alcoholism, obesity, homicides and suicides. Distress can be the reason for divorces, drug use, physical abuse and even bullying.

We must address the mental health crisis that is taking place in our society. The majority of it is preventable and treatable. Research overwhelmingly shows that, with the right training, people can learn the skills necessary to be more resilient, solve problems effectively and reduce depression. The outcome is a happier, healthier and more compassionate society.

We are failing millions and millions of people by not addressing these issues. We were given a huge wake-up call with the Newtown tragedy. And here is yet another wake-up call:

It is time to make some significant changes.

Aaron Swartz (Nov. 8, 1986-Jan. 11, 2013) shared with us his selfless desire to make educational resources available to the masses. Let us learn from his tragic death. Just as our health care helps people with diabetes get their blood sugar under control, we must help those who are struggling with depression get the resources they need.

My dream is a world where in addition to math and English, history and computer literacy, our children are taught exactly how to handle stress. They are given the tools they need to be empowered (regardless of what life throws at them), the skills to be truly happier and more confident, and the ability to thwart depression, hopelessness and helplessness.

What a wonderful world that would be.

For more by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.