Diaspora, depression, and suicide

By Razib Khan | November 21, 2011 11:32 am

What We Don’t Know About Suicide:

CNNMoney reports that Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of four co-founders of the social networking site Diaspora, died over the weekend, and that suicide was the likely cause of death. He was 22.

I gave some money to Diaspora. It seems like it didn’t pan out. So? But that’s easy for me to say, I just gave a little money. I suspect many of us have faced with panic the likelihood of failure. Personalities differ in how we can process that failure. I remember in college reading the story of a kid who killed himself because of shame over a credit card debt on the order of a few thousand dollars! We make a big deal today about how failure is critical to ultimate success, but we don’t put enough spotlight on the day to day toll that failure necessarily takes on many people….

MORE ABOUT: Ilya Zhitomirskiy
  • Camelia Aguilera

    Some people think that depression is normal with age. But it’s not. Older adults may go through major life changes or challenges that trigger depression. Such things as losing a spouse, living with a long-term health problem, or leaving a home you’ve lived in for many years are more common among older adults than others.

    Camelia Aguilera

  • juan

    Major mental illness often doesn’t manifest until the early 20s. Not sure if that’s due to neurological changes or because that period might produce more intense stress. My psychiatrist friend’s golden rule of marriage is to never marry anyone under 25. If they make it to 25 without any major psychiatric issues, they’ll be ok. Younger than that and you just don’t know. Knew a guy in college who seemed normal at age 20 and by 22 had gone seriously insane. A buddy of mine who went to an Ivy League law school had one of his classmates go nuts and become convinced my friend and others in his class were plotting against him.

    If stressors are the issue then presumably the modern world with it’s extended, coddled adolescence would produce later onset mental illnesses. Then again, perhaps the lack of clear position and purpose in society that comes with the extended adolescence is a major stressor unto itself.

  • Mephane

    I think the last point is one of the (many) big problems humanity has yet to face: to value mistakes and failure as opportunities to learn and improve. Instead, they are more often than not treated as the cornerstones of personal downfall. It manifests in so many situations – you can do a thousand things right and no one notices, but do a single mistake and that’s it. I am convinced that this is also the major reason why a lot of people have trouble accepting criticism (I wouldn’t exclude myself from that lot), no matter how helpful, and rather live in a nest of lies only for the sake of “keeping your face”.

    In the end, I believe there are far more external than interal factors for depression or suicide than many people imagine. Often it is just attributed to their own mental state, disregarding all the outside influences that lead to that state in the first place.

    I am by no means a psychologist, but from my personal observations, I think a lot of the modern mental diseases, like depression or burn-out, are direct indicators of things that go wrong in our culture as a whole.

  • DHR

    “We make a big deal today about how failure is critical to ultimate success, but we don’t put enough spotlight on the day to day toll that failure necessarily takes on many people”

    There is in actuality very little that failure changes in terms of day to day reality in our society. Failure for someone like Ilya means having to take up a job at Google. The diaspora team were probably living off ramen anyways.

    The problem of day to day toll that people tend to suffer as a result of failure is a result of their brain’s conception of the impact that the failure is going to have on their life at some point in the future. And this conception has the capacity to be quire harrowing.

    Getting caught up in this temporal narrative and not paying enough attention to their day to day experience.

    This ted talk by a neuroanatomist’s experience of strokes sheds light, on how the brain might generate the sort of temporal narrative that I am referring to…

  • zkkz

    I wasn’t under the impression that Diaspora was in danger of failing. It’s behind schedule, but the alpha version has been released.

  • Justen

    I think the idea of failure as a learning experience is a mature and responsible coping mechanism in response to the often overwhelming pressure to succeed. It’s not a failure to recognize the sincerely felt consequences of failure; it’s a prescription for dealing with them.

  • Justin Loe

    @ #2

    As to the question of why mental illnesses manifest in the 20s age range, there’s some research that suggests that there is a progressive loss of neurons and differential maturation of neurons from the teen years until the early 20s in schizophrenia vs normal controls. Essentially, the neurons in some regions of these individuals die off and there’s an underdevelopment in other regions.

    It is true, however, that certain cognitive abnormalities, as measured by neuropsychological testing, can be identified earlier than age 25 and perhaps as early as the early teens.

    More details here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19796863

  • Wes

    “We make a big deal today about how failure is critical to ultimate success, but we don’t put enough spotlight on the day to day toll that failure necessarily takes on many people”

    Good point. And we need to be aware that each person comes with a different psychological profile, a different personality, largely influenced by genes, that determines how we will respond. Some people feel shame more easily, more deeply. Others could care less.

    It’s important to learn how to handle failure, so instead of pushing a one-size-fits-all approach (especially with kids), we should be aware that some of our most sensitive talent reacts quite badly to failure.

  • Mephane

    It’s important to learn how to handle failure

    Indeed, but the problem still holds – instead of teaching and learning how to handle failure (and learn from it), there is usually a small amount of empty talk, like a parent saying to a child how important it is from mistakes, and then the rest of the time all around them just shows them what failure leads to – bullying, punishment, loss of face and reputation. It’s like saying one thing but doing the opposite – a child will quickly learn that the opposite of what is said is true.

    We cannot expect people to properly deal with failure if all they have been shown during their life is that failure implies punishment and repression, even if the failure itself is bad enough as is. You’ve fallen to the ground? Well be prepared to be kicked at a few times.

    And then another notion: failure to cope with failure can easily lead to a vicious circle of self-blaming and depression. First people expect you to succeed in your endeavour – but you failed, so people will point the finger at you (or at least that is what you expect from your experience), so instead of utilizing the mistake as an opportunity for improvement, it turns into an opportunity for punishment. Then, as you are dragged down by the real or perceived punishment, people may blame you for not properly coping with the original mistake, which is yet another case of failure.

    Unless we collectively change our attitude towards other people’s mistakes, we can never expect them to change their attitude towards their own, it just doesn’t work.

  • http://astronasty.blogspot.com DJ Busby

    situational depression, potentially treatable by therapy alone, is dangerous, yes. those of us with severe biochemical disorders in the first place have to build an arsenal of coping skills to fight frequent thoughts of suicide and despair. More education about the differences might encourage people to hold on.

  • ackbark

    You must despair of despair itself. Could there be a more useless experience?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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