What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong–And Right–About Robin Williams’ Suicide

What Matt Walsh Gets Wrong–And Right–About Robin Williams’ Suicide

Night-at-the-Museum-robin-williams-23589840-852-480

Matt Walsh describes Robin Williams’ recent suicide as a “bad decision.” Without any qualification, this judgment presumes too much. Suicide as an objective act is certainly a moral and social evil, but to say that a suicide has made a bad decision at least appears to claim knowledge of that person’s subjective state, and that is knowledge we simply cannot claim to have. In the order of charity, we should in fact presume the very best regarding Williams’ subjective state at the point of his death.

Walsh writes: “Suicide does not claim anyone against their will.” This also needs qualification. It seems plausible that Williams’ illness in a way, and to an extent we cannot know, “coerced” his judgment. Someone I read yesterday compared living with severe depression to living with a loaded gun next to one’s head. Feeling the nozzle of a gun at one’s temple doesn’t take away one’s decision-making power, but it sure puts some serious physical and psychological constraints upon it. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2282: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”

See also this excellent interview with the two authors of The Catholic Guide to Depression.

Abuse of drugs and alcohol can also contribute to a suicidal impulse, and we know that Williams recently received treatment for addiction, but until more facts come to light we shouldn’t speculate about how all of this might have contributed to his suicide.

I am no authority on depression, and so I am wondering whether depression can become so bad as to be wholly incapacitating, such that we have to say that the suicide did not really make a decision, did not commit a human act, because his rational faculties, through no fault of his own, were totally impaired. I would be interested to hear from experts on this point.

In any event, it is well to keep in mind possible mitigating factors when assessing the morality of someone’s suicide–especially from a distance.

Walsh goes on to argue that we shouldn’t turn the discussion about depression into a “cold, clinical matter.” “Depression is a mental affliction, yes,” he says, “but it is also spiritual.” Here I think Walsh is onto something. Yesterday I too argued that in moving so quickly past the horror of Williams’ suicide to celebrations of Williams’ talent and cries for better depression awareness that we miss talking about the most important thing in this situation: the need to understand depression, as with every human suffering, in light of Christ’s suffering. We may never understand or be able to control all of the organic causes of depression, but we can do our best to place that suffering, and help others place that suffering, into the very wounds of Christ and join it to his suffering in love and reparation. I’m not saying that taking this supernatural outlook will cure depression, or that the depressed person should not pursue every available human means of healing. I’m saying that only in the Cross does suffering make ultimate sense. Only in the Cross do we find a lasting hope. Our task as Christians is to bring this message of hope to the world, both through advocating appropriate human means of healing and by spreading the Good News that depression and other evils never have the final word.

It is because our culture is losing faith in this hope that it is becoming so sentimental about death. Walsh criticizes the tweet from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that under an image of Disney’s Genie from Aladdin, a character voiced by Williams, said “Genie, you’re free.” Death is freedom for those who die in the love of Christ, but it is doubtful that the Academy meant the tweet to be taken in this context. Again, no one should presume to judge the subjective state of Williams’ soul. We should be praying for his repose and for the consolation of his family and friends. But neither should we construct sentimental heavens that can be entered without cost. This diminishes the dignity of the human person, who can either find his fulfillment and freedom in God or waste himself seeking himself. The sadness of Williams’ untimely death naturally impels us to seek comfort, but let us seek it in that which truly comforts, and not in sweet imaginings.

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The photograph of Robin Williams above is reproduced courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

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Comments

  1. Apparently he tried to slit his wrists first, but was unsuccessful. He could’ve stopped there. Maybe THAT was his warning, his final chance.

  2. a catholic psychologist says:

    No one can know with certainty the state of mind of another person. This is a psychological as well as a philosophical truth that affects all understanding of subjective knowledge. Thus, we cannot know if suicide is simply an act of cowardice, malice, confusion or a bad decision; indeed, suicide may entail cowardice in one person, malice in another, and confusion in yet another. I have treated persons where these descriptors could have included ‘all of the above’, but I would not be certain if any were ultimately operative. If selfishness is operative in suicide, this seems to be a byproduct of suicide and is not a motive, as such, unless it was counted as a part of cowardice. The idea of selfishness arises from the perspective of the next of kin, since, in many many cases, the relatives are often at a complete loss of purpose or meaning, and extreme guilt is often found in the surviving relatives and friends. “Did I drive him to do it?” The successful suicide has difficulty taking these consequences into account during his contemplation. In the final analysis, the problem of ultimate and specific culpability is intractable.

    However, the general motive of suicide is more accessible. The underlying theme in most suicide would seem to be the overwhelming desire to escape pain—a fact that was artfully observed by St Augustine. And yet, Major Depressive Disorder is often accompanied by psychotic symptoms which would indicate that the person in psychosis is literally out of his mind. My experience is that most people contemplate suicide for some time, in and out of the psychosis, and that, whatever is happening in the mind of the person at the moment of death, which i venture is the moment of culpability, there is a ‘rational’ calculus that precedes the event. Indeed, very rational and moral people can have a desire from time to time to leave this world, but do not presume to pick the manner or the moment of their exit. The reasons are many, but one that stands out it theological.

    Statistical evidence suggests that one’s religious belief has a profound effect on the likelihood of moving beyond contemplation and actually committing suicide, psychiatric symptoms and brain chemistry not withstanding. Durkhiem many years ago observed that Catholics were least likely to kill themselves—Catholics now kill themselves at rates similar to the general population. 100 years ago, fear of hell was the compelling factor in the Catholic decision calculus—this fear was based on the belief that God gives life, and only He can take it away; those who short-circuit this ontology court eternal disaster. Hence, despite the despair and psychosis, the fear of hell closed off certain avenues of escape for most Catholics back then. Victor Frankl suggested another predictor, which was the purpose of life. People can suffer a lot if they know that there is a purpose in others beyond the suffering, and a desire not to spread one’s suffering to others. Of course, the devout Christian also understands that all suffering is redemptive; no suffering is without meaning, and all personal suffering can be endured in the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion. As these core beliefs are diluted in the secular city, suicide has become more common.

    • Daniel McInerny says:

      I very much appreciate your sharing your expertise with us. Thank you!

      • It is so nice to hear the voice of a Catholic psychologist. Working with the mentally ill today and not having the faith is a real dead end street….I am glad you are out there!

        My heart aches for Robin Williams and the pain that he must have been in, in order to make such a drastic decision and follow it through. If only he knew of the love of Christ and the mercy of God……. perhaps he could have reasoned another way out. But sadly his pain overwhelmed him, and we cannot judge , since we have not been in his skin nor had his problems, nor had his illness.

        The fact that he gave so many people the gift of laughter is what makes the thought of his being in so much pain all the more surreal.

    • Catholic pilgrim says:

      You’re right on Durkheim’s monumental “Suicide” study, but I’ll add another bit to it. Yes Catholics used to have lower suicide rates than Protestants primarily because of fear of hell, but also because European Catholics focused more on community living (feast days, rest, neighborhood, poor, etc.) while Protestants were more dangerously Individualistics (hence “Protestant Ethic”) & placed a higher value on wealth-making than on community-bonding. Today, in France & elsewhere in Europe, Catholics & Protestants are unfortunately pretty much indistinguishable when it comes to social conditions like suicide rates or isolation.

  3. “Objectively it is a sin and depending on the circumstances the suicide is morally culpable for the act.”

    The way I learned it was that the in suicide with depression, there was sin present regardless of the state of mind. However, given the severity of the impairment, the gravity may have been lessened and a venial sin was committed. This seems consistent with the CCC reference on mitigating factors in suicide.

    Sin remains however, even if culpability is lessened (though not completely.)

    • Daniel McInerny says:

      Thanks, Austin. Your analysis of the moral gravity of a suicide with serious mitigating factors is very probably right. Still, as I wondered about in my post, there “might” be cases–and I’m not the person to say there are or not–where the mitigating circumstances take away from all subjective culpability. I’d love to hear an expert on depression discuss this.

      • Katherine says:

        I am no expert on depression but I can relate this: My beloved son suffered from depression (probably bi-polar) for half of his life. Although under the care of a professional and trying yet again another medication he took his life at age 34. I later learned that he had confided to a friend earlier that week that he was hearing voices telling him to harm himself. I can only pray that at the end Jesus took my son into His merciful arms to rest in peace. I refuse to judge. I continue to hope and pray that I may see him again.

      • Daniel McInerny says:

        Dear Katherine, I will be praying to Our Father of Mercies for the repose of your son and for you and your entire family.

  4. CCC: ” 2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
    .
    When quoting any CCC paragraph, please quote in entirety or use “………..” for those parts left out.
    *
    CCC: ” 2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life.
    It is gravely contrary to the just love of self.
    It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. ”

    Jesus will judge each of us at death.
    Most of those who commit suicide are very self centered, rather than God centered.
    Their world revolves around them and their issues.
    _______________________________

    • Daniel McInerny says:

      Dear Bill, thanks so much for providing more of the context of these relevant paragraphs from the Catechism. Suicide is, objectively, a gravely evil act. But I myself am not prepared to make blanket judgments about the subjective selfishness of “most of those” who commit suicide. Isn’t it better to let God decide that?

  5. Joe Arlinghaus says:

    Most of my Catholic friends have no real experience with the suicidal nature of major depression. I cringe when I hear people discuss the sin of suicide. I cringe because most suicides are simply not committed by people in control of their mind. Major depression is something I could not imagine until I saw it and experienced it. There is a pain in those with major depression which is worse than physical and the mind of the depressed person often cannot bear that pain. The act of suicide in such people is rarely made with even an understanding of what is being done. It can often be an impulsive effort to end pain. It is often accompanied by illogical convictions regarding the afterlife or total despair in the existence if the same. The compulsive thoughts can often be like another person controlling the depressed person.

    There is a reason that 10% of all major depression ends in suicide.

    But most people who survive major depression feel a shame at their illness so we hear little at all first hand about this illness.

    And many Catholics, even priests, live in a false conviction that most suicides are just selfish decisions and a mortal sin.

    And maybe most sad is the reality that there are very very few therapists who can integrate Catholic teaching and psychotherapy. Thank God for Dr. Philip Mango, Dr. Paul Vitz, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Dr. Susan Baars, her late father Dr. Conrad Baars, and the DC Institute for the Pschological Sciences. The need for good Catholic therapists is just as serious as the need for good Cstholic Ob-Gyn’s.

    • Daniel McInerny says:

      Thanks so much, Joe, for this heartfelt reflection. I’m so glad you mentioned the good work being done by Dr. Mango et. al, and especially at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In what sense, in counterpoint to Matt Walsh’s wording, could it be said to be a good decision? True questions about culpability abound, but was it not a decision? And was it not a sin?

    • Daniel McInerny says:

      Suicide, because it is an objectively evil act, can never be deemed a “good decision.” Objectively it is a sin and depending on the circumstances the suicide is morally culpable for the act. In the post I mentioned that I am not enough of an expert on depression to say whether there are cases in which someone could be wholly and completely incapacitated, such that he or she would not be capable of any decision-making. But there are clearly cases, as the Catechism states, in which the moral responsibility of a suicidal act is mitigated because of the illness of the agent. In any event, God is the judge of all subjective culpability.

  7. I echo those stating you’ve made some excellent points regarding Walsh’s essay. I think psychology misses a great deal by ignoring (at best) or pathologizing (at worst) a client’s spiritual self. I’m grateful for books like The Catholic’s Guide To Depression for integrating faith and the science of psychology.

    I did not read Walsh as casting judgement on Mr. Williams’s subjective state of mind. Instead, I took a “bad decision” as an objective description of that particular act’s, i.e. the suicide’s, impact on those left behind. I will grant you, Mr. Walsh, perhaps, could have been more clear on that point. Or, as you put it, qualified his comments on that point.

  8. Daniel, Excellent analysis of the article and explanation of what we really should be doing during a time like this. In my illustrious career I worked with two people who were under the deep clouds of depression. The only help they need from others is strength and if the end comes in a way we didn’t expect we have to accept that there is a Higher Power.
    Uncle Ray

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