Before Commenting on Suicide, Please Know What You’re Talking About

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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.

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14 Replies to “Before Commenting on Suicide, Please Know What You’re Talking About”

  1. I am no psychologist obviously, but I wonder if the church has a hard time dealing with this issue because of the after life status of taking your own life and as you said “believe suicide is a choice”. I agree the outdated belief skews our judgement of the issue, but also the worry many Christians have about other’s “going to hell or not” status. I believe I read somewhere the Robin Williams was an atheist, so I cannot attest to his own life, but say a Christian who has devoted their life to Christ has depression and in that moment of psychosis they take their lives. I will not argue that suicide is not a sin, but is it one that could separate us from the love of Christ? I don’t know, maybe you have a clearer opinion than I do, but this thought may drive the ignorant judgements.

    1. Hi Megan, I agree that the question of eternity is a big one. Here are a few thoughts:

      1. We are not tasked with judging who will be in hell and who will be in heaven; only God can do that. God is judge and our only job is to share the message of the gospel, love as Christ did and invite people into God’s kingdom. I wouldn’t presume to say who’s in and who’s out.
      2. The world is a fallen and broken place where people die of disease and sickness. In my opinion, those who are victims of a warped state of mind and the actions committed when experiencing a psychotic episode are sick in the same way that a cancer patient is sick. God doesn’t condemn people to hell for being sick with cancer. I think it’s wrong to believe he would condemn someone for being sick with mental problems.
      3. I believe God is full of more love, mercy and compassion than we could ever dream. God is just and wise and he understands the complexity of our brokenness better than we ever could. Although these may be difficult questions for us, I don’t think they are for God.

  2. While I will agree that many are quick to rush to judgment and some Christians apply all problems to sin being in our life or similar thoughts, I am taken by the strong wording here that basically when Christians take any view that Jesus is the answer or can be part of the answer that its to be discounted.

    I have had a fair amount of experience counseling bi polar individuals over the past 32 years of counseling, 17 of those as the chaplain for a Fire Dept. where suicide in a community and mental disorders are common.

    All I would propose to the writer is that they don’t discount either the teachings of Scripture, or the power of Jesus Christ in any persons situation.

    In Mark 5 Jesus directly confronts a lunatic, which Webster defines as a person that shows insane behavior. Which would define at least in some cases mental disorders.

    Likewise Matthew 8:16 speaks of those who are possessed and Jesus healing them, and vs. 17 connects it to Isa. 53 and Him taking on our infirmities and bare our sickness.

    I got the sense from this article that the writer wouldn’t agree with that, and that would to say that Christ death on the cross didn’t make a way for that healing.

    Luke 8:29-30 speak of a man who is possessed with multiple demons, one which answers to the name of Legion, not unlike some cases of multiple personality disorder. Again Jesus is the answer.

    I think I understand what the writer was trying to say, but just caution in the wording used. Semantics is always a difficult thing but as I read the article I just got the feeling that Christians are kind of evil for their rash rush to judgment, and perhaps even foolish to throw out that Jesus might be the answer.

    My take of scripture, much like the woman with the issue of blood is that when all our medical and clinical efforts fail the Lord is still able to prevail.

    I do have to say that it is my belief that Christ could have made a difference in Robin Williams life had he of come into a personal relationship with Him. It makes me want to be more sure that I don’t walk by a troubled person but rather show them the love of Christ.

    Doctors are clearly of the Lord as Luke was a physician, but there are times where only Jesus can make the difference.

    I apologize in advance to the writer if they think me to harsh, but I simply want to be sure we don’t cast guilt on some who do understand but also understand the place Christ can and will play.

    1. Hello Patriot Pastor, thank you for your thoughts.

      I can see how the language used may give the impression that I am downplaying Christ’s power to minister healing to sick individuals. Let me just state that I believe fully in the restoring and healing work that Christ can bring. If I didn’t communicate that, it is an error on my part.

      However, the article was really written in response to several popular Christian blogs which have made the opposite error in downplaying the healing work that professional psychotherapy can bring.

      Prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit are integral parts of a Christian’s recovery process but the Lord may also use mental health professionals. In some of the popular blogs which have gone viral, there was a clear misunderstanding of the role that mental illness plays in people’s lives and in the final moment when a person takes their own lives.

      So to sum up, a person’s recovery can be complimented by spiritual/physical healing and psychotherapy. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  3. Sir, have you ever heard the voice of the enemy, the devil, say things like go and jump off the top of this building, or when you climb a six story building and he whispers in your ear to jump, or take a rope and tie it around your neck? Well, I have and I was going through a lot of hard times in my life, like a divorce, a dad that was about to die,etc,etc. if you don’t think the devil is alive and lives to kill you and me and your family you are sadly mistaken! Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry, cast out devils,demons, that we’re tormenting people all the time. All I’m saying about suicide is that a demonic spirit is assigned to that person to convince him or her that killing yourself is a sure way to go and leave all your troubles behind. That night in my barracks while serving in the military in ft.hood,tx I was about to put that rope around my neck and kill myself but I said within myself,” I’ll look at t.v. One more time,so I turned on the t.v. and lord and behold Ben Kenslow from the 700 club was speaking about how God loves me and he doesn’t want me to die. So I cried out to The Lord Jesus Christ and said, if you are there I want to give my life to you Lord! The enemy said to me, “you weren’t there 2000 years ago, how do you know he died for you? Yo see sir, I have heard the voice of the devil and I have heard the voice of The Lord, and I chose to believe the voice of The Lord Jesus Christ. I was totally set free from suicide,alcohol,drugs,the desire to kill myself was gone immediately! I knew I was born again!

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As a woman who has had a long history of clinical depression, and have been recently fighting through a recurrence of major depressive disorder, your analysis hit home with me and I agree with much of what you say. I have recently had my medication adjusted, and I am now feeling better. Major depression has very little to do with what is going on in one’s life. It is an internal struggle and physical illness of the brain. During an earlier bout about 10 years ago, I leaned heavily on the church and faith to cure me of my depression. I was fortunate to have pastors who recognized the importance of seeking help from mental health professionals, and encouraged me to do so. However, I also had well meaning Christian friends suggesting demons (or the devil) causing this problem for me, and gave me reading material supporting their belief, one of which was written by Joyce Meyer. While I know there are references in the Bible to demons being chased away by Jesus, I personally believe that because of a lack of scientific data in the days of Jesus’ time, mental illness was thought to be a product of the devil. I am not discounting the power of prayer; prayer can help people with all illnesses, and I myself have been soothed and benefitted by prayers by my pastors and friends as I had surgeries for other physical ailments I experienced. I can tell you that at the height of a major depressive episode, the feelings of hopelessness, despair, the darkness, the negativism, the lack of self worth, the lethargy, the extreme sadness etc., are intense and overwhelming! I am fortunate I did not reach the point of wanting to end my life.

  5. Mental health issues in the Christian community are definitely frowned upon and sufferers are encouraged to hide it and say nothing. As much as pastor patriot says that Christ is the only healer. Unfortunately the church is the biggest factor of why people walk away from the Healer, especially when they have a mental health issue. The church does not like anyone in their walls that doesn’t present perfection to the outside world. It doesn’t want to show that Christians struggle too with these issues. They prefer to hide them and then blame the poor soul who needs help as not being faithful enough, not being on their knees enough. Many well intentioned but spiritually pompous Christians have probably pushed more people to do what Mr. Williams did then prevent it. Christ was about love and coming along side the sick and hurting. Not standing above them telling them every reason why they are suffering and why they will never be good or clean enough for The Lord. People with mental illness isn’t good business for the church or their bottom line or what they stand for.
    Mr. Williams struggled his whole adult life with mental illness. He had a diagnosed mental health issue, which made him successful as Jordan above said. He was able to turn the highs of bi polar into a positive for others. He learned how to make them laugh and bring joy to everyone but himself. He struggled with alcoholism and in the last few years a broken marriage. We as the world enjoyed his gift he chose to share with us. But how many of us knew what happened in his mind when the lows hit. That drowning feeling of worthlessness, of never quite measuring up. How many people came along side him, and said even if you were never funny again, we will still love you. Even in your worst, darkest hour when you are all alone we will still love you?
    I stay far from the modern church of super churches and putting on a happy show. In today’s world Christians are more concerned about getting noticed for all the good things they do rather then actually helping someone. When was the last time we were Jesus with skin on for those who really need him. Pastor Patriot’s generalizing scriptures and pulling out those that keep the church in their arrogant pathway. When he comes along side someone to just love them instead of fix them as Christ did…then he will be on the right track. Maybe asking to personally experience a glimpse of what a person with a mental health issue experiences on a daily basis will help empathy and compassion flow instead of judgement and rejection.

  6. As I pastor, I wholeheartedly agreed with both the tone and content of this article. Jordan’s life work is a testament to his belief in the power of Jesus to bring wholeness. I’m thankful for people who understand that sermons and Scriptural prescriptions are not enough. We need caring caregivers to walk the journey with us and sometimes medicine to adjust the chemical imbalances that accompany this disease. We pastors need to realize that most miracles don’t happen in our worship services but in the loving environment of recovery groups and counselors offices where the pain of life can be safely uncovered.

  7. From Pstr Mark;

    The ONLY unforgivable sin is to reject the sacrifice of Jesus the Christ, who was crucified, buried and resurrected to validate his authority to wash away our sins……

    …..suicide is NOT an unforgivable sin, as many believe.

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