I really am not interested in getting on the Robin Williams bandwagon. I enjoyed his movies and am sad that he is dead but I really am not interested in getting more hits on my blog by taking advantage of his death.
Having said that, I feel as if I have been pushed into commenting, not about Robin Williams so much as mental health and suicide. The push came from reading Matt Walsh’s Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died From His Choice. I am not going to be one of his rabid critics as he is free to have his opinion and he does raise some good topics. Still, his post requires some response.
The death of Robin Williams is significant not because he was famous, but because he was human, and not just because he left this world, but particularly because he apparently chose to leave it.
This seems to be the heart of Walsh’s post, that suicide is a choice. Technically he is correct. Suicide by definition is something one does to them self and not something forced upon them.
However, Walsh’s use of choice is disturbing. He seems to suggest choice is the selection of two or more attainable options. I will choose Coke or Pepsi. I will choose pizza or a hamburger. Is that the sort of choice that people contemplating suicide have?
Before getting into issues of mental health, let me offer another example. You are on the twentieth floor of a high rise building. Your entire floor is on fire but you have been able to get the window open. You can stay by the window to get air and wait to be burnt alive or you could jump to a quick death. Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that even in this case that suicide is acceptable. What I am suggesting is that the decision to not jump is not a simple choice. The alternative to jumping is something quite horrible. I suspect people with severe mental issues have a similar difficult choice.
Walsh argues that Williams did not die of a disease. Even if he had a mental illness, it was not the illness is that ultimately killed him. If you want to be that technical, most people do not die from the disease they have, no matter how serious. By far the majority of the sick people who have died have died from pneumonia and not their actual disease. It is the disease that weakness their body so that the pneumonia can kill them.
I believe that something like this happens with mental illness. While mental illness cannot kill anyone by it self, it can weaken the mind/heart/soul to the point that they are very susceptible to suicide or other self-destructive behaviour.
What does Walsh have to say about mental illness?
Also, incidents like this give us an opportunity to talk about depression, and we certainly should. Only we shouldn’t turn the subject into a purely cold, clinical matter. “Chemical imbalances,” people say. “A man is depressed because of his brain chemicals, and for no other reason.”
No, we are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies. Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals.
Walsh seems to downplay the role of chemical imbalances in depression. While not outright denying it, he does seem to suggest that many people use that as a copout. The problem is that there is good scientific evidence that depression and other mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances. I have seen the difference when medication is given to correct this imbalance. The change in the person borders on the miraculous. Mental illness is just as much a disease as diabetes and should be treated as such.
Writing for a Christian audience, Walsh notes that we are more than our brains and bodies. I would agree with that. But that does not speak to the nature of mental illness. Two of my children have severe autism. They are more than their brains and bodies and yet that does not change the fact that autism is a neurological disorder.
What about the spiritual nature of depression? There may indeed be a spiritual component to depression as there may be to every illness. But who is to say that depression is any more spiritual than the sarcoidosis that I suffer from?
Did Robin Williams die from a disease or a choice? Yes. While I was not with him in his last moments, by all counts his depression had disabled him. It made him vulnerable to substance abuse and ultimately to suicide.
Is suicide a choice? Yes but it is not a choice between two equal options. It is not a choice between death and life. It is a choice between death and severe emotional pain, the dark cloud of depression, hopelessness and despair.
My concern with Walsh’s painting of suicide as a choice is that it sets up people with severe depression for failure. Mental illness clouds the mind, turns perspective upside down and prevents people from making proper choices.
People who are mentally ill need to seek help, they need to receive professional care so that they are able to make choices.
If you are depressed and are contemplating suicide, seek that help right now. This website may be of help for you. If you live outside of Canada, they can point you in the right direction.
For another perspective on this, please read my wife’s blog post on this same topic.