Robin Williams’ suicide inspired an incorrect and hurtful statement by “Absolute Truth” blogger Matt Walsh, a non-psychotherapist/non-expert in mental health. Walsh claims to know that Williams’ suicide was “a choice.” I sense Walsh has a sincere desire for mental illness to not be capable of stealing one’s sense of meaning-in-suffering and hope for periods of respite in which to enjoy life and love again. Walsh insists that if one can choose joy, one can resist choosing suicide. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide, therapists who have lost clients to the ravages of mental illness, and those who struggle with depression, wish it were that simple.
I read Walsh’s article, hoping he’d merely been mis-quoted. For balance, I also read a blog response by Rev. Jean-Daniel Williams (Suicide and Choice: An Open Letter to Matt Walsh, at www.pastorjd.com, 8/12/2014). Rev. Williams humbly admits that his depression and suicidal thoughts have not been removed despite his faith. He admits he cannot be sure he will never commit suicide.
I find merit in, and sympathy with, some aspects of Walsh’s post, especially when I sense the subtext of his own personal wrestling with depression and his hope that suicide, though derivative of the severest of mental illnesses, is always avoidable. I agree with Rev. Williams that Walsh cannot make an educated pronouncement that Robin Williams made a choice rather than succumbed to his bipolar mental illness, with the added threat of Parkinson’s disease as perhaps a last straw.
Whether or not Walsh meant it, the word “choice” implies not only autonomy and willpower, but a moral burden as well. But when people die of cancer we never say they failed to control their illness and chose to die. We say their organs shut down, or they lost their battle. We ought to extend the same logic to those who die of mental illness: their cognitive processes are clouded, their emotional coping skills are drained, and they lose their battle. But instead we default to our Western idolatry of rationalism and our American ‘bootstraps’ mentality. We want to believe we can always think our way out of our troubles, our sins, our mistakes. But a mind clouded by mental illness cannot think clearly over the inner noise and emotional assault on the self.
When ill, every person of faith prays for cure, relief from hard suffering, and a return to normal life. Sometimes it does not seem God answers the particulars of these prayers. Then we are reduced to praying for the essentials: Dear God, please be with me, for I might truly die by my own hand. Let me feel your presence. Heal me, release me, love me into Yourself. Not one of us is privy to the final, intimate prayers of one who succumbs to mental illness and suicide.
We will all die, because we are all mortal. God never said otherwise. Eternal life in God is what’s promised. Walsh wants desperately to believe no one has to die of bipolar or depression (or, by extension, substance abuse, gender dysphoria, schizophrenia or eating disorders).
This weekend, clergy throughout America have a choice to take on or avoid making a ‘public service announcement’ that speaks to the folks at church or shul of the need to seek treatment for mental illness, without shame. For many in the pews do contemplate suicide, or mourn its intrusion in their families, or work as mental health healers to prevent it and ameliorate mental illness.
It is harder, but very helpful, to give an appropriate message at the funeral of someone who dies by suicide. The pastoral task is a delicate balancing of the need to avoid unintentionally giving tacit permission for suicide to the vulnerable, with the duty to extend God’s peace and hope even for these dead. Our respective traditions contain such wisdom.
In ongoing Jewish understandings of mental illness and suicide, from the early sages forward, a shrewd dual teaching can be found, that “willful” suicide renders the one who has killed himself unable to receive the customary burial rituals, and that it is unlikely that anyone ever willfully commits suicide. Cleverly, the exhortation is made for the safety of the vulnerable, while mercy is extended to the deceased. The sages knew that no one who suicides could be willfully desirous of throwing away God’s gift of life. Mental illness does not lead to willful suicide. Mental illness is a distortion of thought that drains the will and depresses the spirit. A funeral for a person dead by suicide would best serve the spirit and memory of the person, and the community, by naming mental illness for what it is, and letting judgment be in the hands of the Merciful One, Who alone knows our hearts and minds.
May peace be granted to all those who entrust their lives, and their deaths, to God.