It was a late night in May. Renderman, the computer hacker notorious for discovering that outdated air traffic control software could be used to reroute planes mid-flight, was feeling shitty. The stress of digging himself out of debt he’d accumulated during years of underemployment was compounded by the feeling of being trapped in a job he hated. He was forgetful and couldn’t focus on anything. “Depression has sapped my motivation and lust for life,” he later wrote. “I can't remember the last time I worked on a project ... it's like I'm a ghost in my own life. Just existing but with no form ... I’m most definitely not myself.”
Feeling slightly buzzed after a few beers, he decided to speak out. “My name is Renderman and I suffer from depression,” he tweeted.
Within minutes, other hackers started responding.
"I just feel so helpless in the real world, so I dive into my own world (computers)," wrote user GuloGuloDesu. "My issue comes that once the depression hits it takes everything away. I just feel like a bump on a log, I don't want to do anything. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't read, I just sit there and stare off into space."
"As much as I'd like to meet new people, my anxiety has me so self-conscious that I hardly talk to anyone," wrote another user, Matir, who has been living with depression and social anxiety for 15 years. Another user named FOOK@ recalled standing in the kitchen with a butcher knife, "blood pooling in the sink," before beginning a recovery that took two and a half years.
I met Renderman, real name Brad Haines, at the Def Con hacker convention in Las Vegas three months after he spilled his guts online. He was wearing a pair of goggles strapped to his hat that displayed two reptilian green eyes, blinking asymmetrically, and a black shirt with "KGB is watching you" stitched over the breast pocket. Beer in hand, he admitted that he is still struggling with depression and has had thoughts of suicide. Still, he was encouraged by the reaction to his public confession.
"It’s a talk and a discussion that has been sorely needed in the community for a while," Renderman said. "The past couple of years, we’ve lost some really good brains, some really good minds — that we know about. How many people in the community do we not know about, that just suddenly weren’t online one day?"
What’s in a hacker?
Renderman, aka Brad Haines.
There have been at least five hacker suicides in the last decade that made the news. In November 2011, Ilya Zhitomirsky, a gifted programmer who was working on a high-profile project billed as a Facebook killer, inhaled a lethal dose of helium. He was 22. In July 2011, cryptographer and security researcher Len Sassaman, 31, hanged himself while getting his PhD in Belgium. Jonathan James, who became the first juvenile to get a federal jail sentence for hacking after he broke into NASA and the Pentagon as a teenager, died by suicide in May 2008 at age 24. In 2002, the 25-year-old programmer Gene Kan, who was widely hailed as a genius, updated his resume to read: "Summary: Sad example of a human being. Specializing in failure," and shot himself in the head.
In January, the well-known programmer and activist Aaron Swartz became the latest hacker to die by his own hand when he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment at the age of 26. Suddenly, every geek was talking about depression: who had it, what caused it, and what could be done about it. Being analytical thinkers, they began to ask themselves: does being a hacker lead to depression?
The term "hacker" has been stretched to encompass welders and robot-makers along with internet entrepreneurs of the post-Facebook goldrush. For the purpose of this piece, it refers to a group that includes malicious "black hat" coders, who hack for fun and profit; well-intentioned "white-hat" programmers, who help companies find security holes; and those who play with computer systems out of innate curiosity without bothering to label themselves. These hackers are more likely to introduce themselves by the handles they use in IRC chat rooms and HackBB forums than by their given names. They form a tight-knit community online, where there’s always someone who is awake. A few times a year, they gather in real life at conferences like Def Con and Hackers on Planet Earth.
I've dealt with depression much of my life. We in the hacker community need to do our thing and hack this disease. No more hacker losses!— Render Man (@ihackedwhat) May 17, 2013
The typical hacker lifestyle doesn’t exactly sound like a breeding ground for good mental health. Erratic sleep patterns and prolonged isolation in front of a computer monitor are common. Prosecution by law enforcement is a constant threat, if not a reality. (Swartz spent the two years before his death under prosecution for downloading more than a million journal articles en masse from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His family believes that the threat of imprisonment contributed to his death.)
It’s tempting to infer that the hacker world attracts introverted outcasts, subjects them to pressure from law enforcement or the soul-sucking technology industry, and finally sequesters them behind a screen until they give up hope. That scenario is pretty far from the truth, however, based on the few studies that have been done on the elusive cohort.
Bernadette Schell, vice-provost at Laurentian University, studied hackers for more than a decade. She worked her way into the hacker community in 2000 by earning the trust of Bernie S, also known as Ed Cummings, a twice-imprisoned "phreaker" or phone hacker. She and two colleagues built profiles on more than 200 hackers, based on a lengthy questionnaire passed out at hacker conferences. She wanted to know whether hackers matched their portrayal in the media, which at the time considered them maladjusted cyber-psychopaths.
Suddenly, every geek was talking about depression: who had it, what caused it, and what could be done about it
"I kept looking for everything that would support these myths," she said. "What I found was that the hacker community was a very well-adjusted group of individuals."
At the time, the perception was that hackers were computer addicted, high-strung type A personalities. But the hackers in Schell’s study turned out to be emotionally balanced, "self-healing" type B personalities. They were a bit more introverted than the average population, but still socially connected. Most were employed and made more than the median income level. Incidence of depression was not higher than in the general population. (In fact, some studies have shown that engineers, a group that has a lot of overlap with hackers, have one of the lowest depression rates compared to other occupations.) The hackers were so resilient that even being sent to jail or charged for hacking crimes did not affect their reported stress levels long term.
In 2012, Schell investigated the incidence of Asperger’s, an autism disorder characterized by difficulty with social interaction; she found it was on par with the general population. Hackers, it seems, are just like the rest of us. "They were quite like the mainstream," she said.
Just fix it
Aaron Swartz. Photo: Quinn Norton (Flickr)
Where hackers stumble, it seems, is in trying to process depression as an engineering problem. When Ilya Zhitomirsky died, Bram Cohen, the creator of the popular file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, listed out the seven hackers he knew who had killed themselves, looking for patterns. "I’m past pain and working on triage," he wrote on Facebook. The prominent hacker Meredith L. Patterson lost both a husband, Len Sassaman, and a friend, Eric Tiedemann, to suicide. When Swartz died, she started looking for numbers. "Do we have statistically significant surveys of engineers as a population?" she asked on Twitter. "If not, let's make that happen."
The roboticist, hacker, and Discovery Channel personality Zoz, also known as Andrew Brooks, served as a student mentor while getting his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. He ended up counseling a lot of depressed undergrads who tried to reverse-engineer a solution rather than seek help. Many hackers even refer to their strategies for dealing with depression as "hacks."
Many hackers even refer to their strategies for dealing with depression as "hacks"
"There were a lot of attempts to break it down into an engineering problem," Zoz said, recalling one former MIT student who wrote an engineering-style paper called "A Beginner’s Guide to Depression" after a spate of depression-related incidents on campus. From the abstract: "I put forth a few ways of modeling the problem, and offer some techniques for coping with depression."
Of course, depression can be difficult to synthesize into a math problem. The cause is usually a combination of cascading factors that are often difficult to trace. The solution can be even harder to pin down.
"It can be incredibly frustrating to be sitting there, looking at your own brain, and going, ‘right, I entirely understand that something is not quite right with the way that my neurotransmitters are communicating with the receptors in my brain,’" Patterson said. "‘I recognize that I can tinker with this balance and otherwise engage in manipulations of my own mental state to try to resolve this situation. I understand all of this, and why is it not working?’"
Just got off the phone with the embassy. Having to talk to a consul about my husband's suicide is the worst conversation I've ever had.— Meredith L Patterson (@maradydd) July 3, 2011
Patterson’s husband, Sassaman, was a widely respected computer scientist, co-founder of the CodeCon conference, and a PhD candidate at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He and Patterson were hailed as a geek power couple. But he had chronic health problems, some of them undiagnosed, and was under a lot of pressure at work in 2010. He began to withdraw from his colleagues and started working from home. Patterson would make two cups of coffee in the morning and leave one for Sassaman before she went to work. When she returned in the evening, she’d find the coffee cold on the counter and her husband still in bed.
Things seemed to be improving in the summer of 2011, and Patterson went back to the US for a few weeks. While she was home, Sassaman stopped answering IMs. A friend flew to Belgium to check up on Sassaman and found him hanging in the closet. Sassaman had been afraid that talking about depression would damage his credibility. All but his closest friends were shocked. "We had no idea," they told his wife.
Patterson decided to talk about Sassaman’s suicide publicly almost immediately, but she was too shaken to compose more than 140 characters at a time. So, she started tweeting about it. "We have to talk about it," she told me. "When people are afraid to talk about it, they die."
Hacking toward solutions
The artist, digital rights advocate, and investment banking software programmer Amber Baldet presented a talk at Def Con this year that stood out among the panels about pen-testing and IPV6 attacks: "Suicide Risk Assessment and Intervention Tactics."
Although the hacker community can be supportive and loving, it’s also rife with egos and immaturity; "go kill yourself" is actually not an uncommon insult. There was some debate over whether a talk about suicide belonged at Def Con; one attendee told Baldet he’d rather commit suicide than go see it. On Saturday night at Def Con, I mentioned to a 24-year-old defense contractor that I had attended a panel on how to prevent suicide. "Is it just, ‘Don’t be a pussy’?" he asked. When I asked him to elaborate, he said that suicide is the "cheater’s way out" and a resort of "14-year-old girls." He’d been depressed before and simply pulled himself out of it, he claimed.
Pulling yourself out of a depressive slump turns out to be really, really hard, said Baldet, who decided to become an expert at intervention after going through two suicides in her family. Hackers operate so far outside the mainstream that they can feel lost even with professional help. "I remember going to my therapist a couple years ago and telling her some story where nobody had real names," Baldet said. "They were all handles. I’m like, ‘No, his name is KillFace,’ or whatever, and she was just like, ‘oookay.’"
Although the hacker community can be supportive and loving, it’s also rife with egos and immaturity
The popular impression that hackers have a high suicide rate could be because many of the hackers who killed themselves were at the top of their fields, and the highly gifted are statistically more likely to suffer from depression. The community’s facility for dissecting, analyzing, and communicating on the internet — a medium that naturally amplifies its message — has also contributed to the perception that there is a hacker suicide crisis
In reality, the situation is getting better. While there are still some negative associations with mental health issues among hackers, that’s true of most cultures. Like the broader public, awareness of mental health issues is growing, and resources like BlueHackers.org, which has information about depression geared to hackers, and IMAlive, an instant message version of a suicide hotline, have helped countless hackers through their issues. Hackers are also eager to help each other; the line for Baldet’s talk started forming 20 minutes before it was set to start, and she was mobbed by questioners afterward.
Six months after Sassaman died, Patterson appeared on a panel called "Geeks and Depression" at the 2011 Chaos Communication Congress (CCC), an international hacker conference. A year later, Patterson was relaxing with friends when she got an email from a stranger: "I just watched the video of the panel you were on and I’ve realized it’s time that I admitted to somebody that I need help." As Patterson sprang into support mode, everyone around her jumped to support her, offering to deliver Kleenex, beer, Adderall, whatever she needed to get through the night. Patterson messaged with the stranger for the next seven hours. She still doesn’t know his name. "All I know about him is the country he lives in," she said. And one more thing. "He is still my friend, and he is still alive."