I was, like so many, shocked and deeply saddened to hear of Robin William’s suicide; he was one of my favorite actors, and Hook is still one of my favorite movies. But even more shocking were some of the very misinformed reactions and statements I found on my social media feeds. Do you know that really well intentioned and well meaning individuals can sometimes say really unhelpful and silly things? Well, they can; and Christians are no exception.
Depression is a scourge that pushes a person into a prison of false reality, fear and hopelessness. False reality because most of the time, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Fear, because the person is often paralyzed by anxiety about the future. And hopelessness because the person cannot imagine things ever getting better.
This is where Robin Williams found himself on Monday.
And by Monday night, the Facebook and Twitter commentary began. I had no idea how many people on Facebook are Mental Health experts specializing in the treatment of clinical depression! And why are these so called Mental Health experts all being so preachy? “You don’t need therapy, you need Jesus!” or “Depression is demonic! Turn to Jesus!” If that’s the case, depressed people don’t need a therapist, they need an exorcist; and I chose the wrong profession.
The hard truth is that when it comes to mental health issues, Christians can sometimes be the worst. Lack of faith! Ungrateful heart! “In sin.” – These are all unpleasant euphemisms that I’ve heard for depression as experienced by a Christian. The message sent is that if you were really a good Christian and if you really believed in Jesus, you wouldn’t feel this way. Therefore, you must not be a good Christian and your faith in Jesus is clearly lacking.
This messaging results in a compounding of the feelings of desperation, despair and hopelessness which they already feel. On top of the depression, add guilt.
Now it’s important to differentiate between a person who has “the blues” and a person who is experiencing what is called “Major Depressive Disorder.” Someone who is having a bad day and feeling a little down isn’t “depressed.” That person really may just need to pick themselves up and get on with it.
But the clinical markers for a diagnosis of Major Depression are clear and measurable. I work with these people every day. It is also entirely possible that the side of Mr. Williams which entertained us and made us laugh may have been only one side of the bi-polar coin.
Is it possible that it was the manic side of Robin Williams that filled our hearts with joy, while we ignored the depressive side? This is not an uncommon thing among comedians. The manic excitements are hilarious, but they often come with a devastating crash.
In any case, it is clear that Robin Williams, despite the hilarious show he put on for his fans, suffered from severe mental illness. And mental illness is the root of suicide.
For all the talk of “choice” that I have heard this week, it is important to remember that people who commit this act are not in a healthy or right state of mind. A frequent opinion from Christians on social media that I have seen since Monday is that suicide is a choice and therefore is selfish and deserves no pity. This is such an outdated and gross misunderstanding of mental illness that it is nearly unbelievable.
People who commit suicide are suffering from a psychosis; that is, an altered reality. These people are not thinking rationally or clearly. To be in a place of desperation and pain, to honestly believe that you are more of a burden to your loved one’s than a blessing, to think that people will be happier if you are gone or that your situation can never get better are characteristic of a suicidal person.
When Robin Williams put the belt around his neck and chose to end his life, he was not in any condition to make an informed choice. To be able to choose rationally a person must be thinking clearly and in a right state of mind. A person must be able to weigh options and consider outcomes. A person must not be experiencing psychosis.
Robin Williams did end his own life, but he did so in a state of severe mental illness and psychiatric distress.
Society in general seems embarrassed to discuss these issues; but the church seems even more embarrassed by them. As compensation for misinformation and ignorance, people will often resort to unhelpful spiritual platitudes that do nothing for a person with mental illness. Usually the moralistic platitudes make the person sharing feel better for having said something but leave the ill person feeling worse. Telling someone they don’t have enough faith or their illness is demonic doesn’t help a person who is sick; praying for them, loving them and sending them to a professional does.
So once again this week we were reminded that what we see on the outside, is never really a clear picture of what is going on inside. People have scars which we may never see, but is there a better place to love and embrace these people than the church? Is there a better place to instill hope and healing, as well as restore people to meaningful relationship than the church?
Robin Williams was a depressed man, a famous depressed man; and that is why we are talking about him. But in the United States, someone commits suicide every 13 minutes and 140 character over spiritualized, uninformed tweets do little to help. If you know someone struggling with mental illness, pray for them and encourage them to get help. If you suffer from mental illness, I assure you, there is hope and things will get better.