Answering Matt Walsh on Robin Williams Suicide

By Ellen Pitts / August 12, 2014

A couple of weeks ago a reader asked me to write a post on how to talk to Christians about anxiety and depression. I know from experience how sensitive this subject is in some Christian circles. There is a stigma among some Christian cultures that places blame on the sufferer for having anxiety or depression. I know it is important to address this presumption of spiritual malfeasance, but I have struggled to find a way to do so.

But then Robin Williams took his life through suicide after a long battle with clinical depression. And on Facebook this afternoon, I became aware of Matt Walsh’s response to this horrible tragedy when a friend posted his blog.  And I knew I couldn’t be silent anymore.

Matt Walsh writes:

…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.”

And on his Twitter feed:

When we talk about depression we shouldn’t pawn the whole thing off on “chemical imbalances.” It’s not just clinical. It’s spiritual.

First of all, I don’t think anyone would suggest that there are not mental, emotional, and in the case of religious practitioners, spiritual aspects to depression. In fact a major study at Columbia University found that spirituality has a major impact on healing from depression.

But it seems that, although Matt Walsh says that it is not only a medical issue (implying that he agrees there is a medical component) he gives us no evidence that he understands the medical component of the disease at all. If he did understand the medical side to it, he would realize that sometimes there isn’t a cure. ‘Not only a clinical issue’ is his lip service to some thing he obviously doesn’t get.

I don’t really know what Matt Walsh has experienced in his life, but it seems to me that he doesn’t understand depression because he presents suicide as some sort of rational decision that a person makes.  But, one who is deeply depressed isn’t thinking logically about whether or not he should take his life – very often he is just trying to breathe. This is how a depressed person feels. Reading this blog post today brought back the darkest days of my illness:

When depression pitches a tent, when it decides to stay despite all measures, it is suffocating in its presence.  For me, every inch–from the hair follicles on my head to the numerous bones in my feet– prickles with excruciating merciless pain and burn with the distinct feeling of one million matches being pressed against the totality of my skin. My limbs and head feel like they weigh thousands of pounds.  It is a monumental task to lift myself out of bed each day and move through what used to be simple air, oxygen and hydrogen that instead feels like a massive sucking sludge.  When I lay down at the end of the day the exhaustion is inexplicable and a concrete slab of anxiety presses down on my chest making it impossible to breathe.  When depression fights to stay, it follows me into my sleep permeating my dreams making them real and vivid and murderous.  It raids my subconscious and brings to the surface every fear that’s buried there.  I wake in the midst of a panic so fierce that I am sure my beleaguered heart will explode into tiny bits, and then…and then I wake up. I do it all over again; a twisted Ground Hog Day movie that refuses to end.  Is it any wonder that some choose to end the cycle themselves?  

 The whole presumption of Matt Walsh’s interpretation of suicide by depression is that the mind is actually functioning in some normal way, that the mind is making a decision in a rational, logical fashion.  But that is just the point.  The brain, as a physical organ, is not functioning properly.

This all might seem pleasant enough, but have we stopped to think how it looks and sounds to those who may be contemplating this heinous deed themselves? Can we tell our friend to step away from the ledge after we just spoke so glowingly of Robin Williams’ newfound “peace” and “freedom”? This is too important a subject to be careless about. We want to say nice things, I realize, but it isn’t nice to lie about suicide.

Depression can be caused by diseases and deficiencies such as vitamin D and B deficiencies and thyroid disease. And if you read any of those links you’ll notice that each of those deficiencies cause other illnesses (such as higher rates of cancer in those with vitamin D deficiency). This is definitely not something as cut and dried as a lack of faith. Or a lack of joy as Matt Walsh says…

…in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression. No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time. The two cannot coexist. Joy is light, depression is darkness. When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it. I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.

I’m sorry to say, and I wish it wasn’t true, but no amount of joy will take away depression caused by thyroid disease. Sometimes depression can be defeated by finding the root cause; sometimes, by setting boundaries in your life; sometimes by changing thought patterns through therapy; sometimes, antidepressants will work if you can find the right one. And sometimes none of these things works.

When I was suffering with severe anxiety and depression I was advised by many well-meaning Christian friends that I just needed to have faith.  But, my faith wasn’t what was shaken and injured.  It was, fortunately for me, through a wonderful therapist I was able to move past that very difficult time in my life and have experienced complete healing. It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy and it definitely wasn’t simply a matter of “turning on the joy.” It took several years of retraining my brain to behave in ways and patterns that were healthy.

Our thoughts, whether they are healthy ones or unhealthy ones are manifested through electrical impulses that wear ridge-like pathways that become the roadways our thoughts travel on. If you often feel a certain way, the feeling becomes habitual. This is why people with diseases like PTSD might feel the same physical anxiety they would feel when running from a predator even though they are in a perfectly safe environment and not running anywhere. The fear has become habitual. There is a physical element to our thoughts and feelings.

One evening, a friend who had been struggling with depression came to my house in tears, saying that she felt like she wanted to kill herself. Her husband, out of fear that she would become addicted to medication, was adamantly against antidepressants. Because I knew that physical illnesses could be at the root cause of depression, I was able to convince her to see her doctor. I don’t think she would have gone otherwise.

Her story has a happy ending. She found out that she had Hashimoto Disease, a type of thyroid disorder. A low dose of medication was very helpful in healing her symptoms, including the worst of her depression. Once she was feeling better, she realized that there was a pattern in her emotional state. The few days before her menstrual cycle she would again struggle with deep depression for a few days. It was like clockwork, a condition obviously caused by changes in her hormone levels. Sometimes people forget that hormones are actually chemicals. The diseases that are most commonly associated with depression are associated with hormones. Vitamin D is a hormone and our thyroid gland regulates hormone levels. Also, periods of high hormonal fluctuation: menstruation, childbirth and menopause, have a strong impact on mental health.

So, giving the idea more than just lip service, depression is a physical condition. And yes, it is emotional. And yes, I believe that it is spiritual. But I don’t believe that the physical condition is simply a result of a spiritual condition, as Matt seems to imply.  I don’t believe that the spiritual-physical connection is a one-way street.

It is true that we can be led by the Spirit to find healing from an often confusing and troubling disease. But it is not true that if we aren’t healed, it’s because G-d has forgotten us, or doesn’t care for us, or that we are doing something wrong.

Sometimes, often, healing does not come and we experience tragedy. Then the question becomes how will we respond to that tragedy.  Some have chosen to respond to the tragedy of Robin Williams suicide by finding hope for others in the memories of his life.  Some have looked back to the lessons his life taught us.  Matt Walsh has responded by simply pointing out that Robin Williams was not well, because no one who was well would do something like take his own life.  For my part, I don’t find that response very helpful.

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