Shae O'Brien is an English teacher, writer, wife, and mother to three beautiful girls. She takes life with a grain of salt and two spoonfuls of sugar! Please be sure to follow her on www.facebook.com/catholicmamablog.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Walsh is Wrong about Robin Williams and Depression

I am still in a state of shock and grief over the loss of Robin Williams. As depression is a disease that runs in my family, hearing of someone choosing death while suffering from mental illness strikes a sorrowful chord within me. 

I have appreciated the heartfelt goodbyes from others who share in this loss. It helps ease the pain to know I am not alone. There was one post though that caught me off guard by a man named Matt Walsh (you may read it here), and I feel it needs to be addressed. So, below are some quotes from his post and my responses to them.

"Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision."

Mr. Walsh simplifies the concepts of suicide and depression early on in his post. By simply calling suicide "a bad decision" that "doesn't happen to you", it negates the understanding of depression and other psychological illnesses and their effects on the human condition. Suicide is never a decision we would want a loved one to make. It is important though to understand that the rationality of a diseased mind is unlike a healthy one. It is not a decision made clearly or in a sane state of mind. It is a decision made while one is under attack by depression.

"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."


Mr. Walsh may have meant that question rhetorically, but I will answer it now. Yes! We can tell our friend to step off the ledge after (even moments after) posting on Facebook that we hope or believe Robin Williams has found peace and freedom.

This is because the disease of depression (and other psychological conditions) prevents a human being from being completely free. The disease attacks one's rational ability to think thoughts or make decisions of free will as God intended. It is a lie to suggest suicide is simply a "bad decision", instead of an action made by a disease-ridden mind that has lost control of rationality. 

So it is not careless to admit someone is now free from the disease that plagued him or her for a lifetime. It also does not take away our right (and duty) to reach out to our loved ones and remind them that our lives would be diminished by the loss of their light. Acknowledging the struggle that causes suicide and begging loved ones to choose life are not mutually exclusive. 

"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."

This statement seemed to receive the most backlash, and I understand why. Mr. Walsh assumes, even though he speaks of his own past with depression, that a psychological disease of "disproportioned brain chemicals" is viewed as "a simple matter" by our society. The fact that he feels the need to add to the definition of this medical condition in order to make it "deeper and more profound" only shows a lack of truly understanding this disease on his part. 

Stating that this condition comes from a chemical imbalance isn't simplifying anything--it's just saying what creates the condition. Does this condition cause mental affliction? Yes. Does it cause spiritual affliction? Often it can. But IS the disease a mental or spiritual affliction? No. Those afflictions are symptoms of the disease, not the definition of it. 

"We tend to look for the easiest answers. It makes us feel better to say that depression is only a disease and that there is no will and choice in suicide, as if a person who kills themselves is as much a victim as someone who succumbs to leukemia."

At this point I would like to mention that I recently found out that Matt Walsh is a Catholic. I say this because I would like to address this belief from a Catholic perspective, as I worry that such a well known Catholic could influence the public's view of our Church in a negative way if it is not clarified. 

No one, not even the Catholic Church, says that depression is a disease because it "makes us feel better". We say that depression is a disease because--and I want to be very clear on this--depression IS a disease. 

Many people wrongly assume that the Catholic Church believes that anyone who commits suicide automatically goes to hell. This is untrue. While the Church does recognize that the act of suicide is "contrary to the love of the living God" (Catechism 2281), it also recognizes the following:

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. (Catechism 2282, paragraph 2)

This brings attention to the fact that psychological conditions prevent a person from acting in a completely rational or sane mindset. The Church doesn't include this statement to make anyone feel better, but to recognize the severity of psychological disturbances and how they can affect an otherwise rational person's state of mind.

"But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other. This is a radically materialist view now shared by millions of spiritualist people."

This statement is frustrating because it assumes quite a bit about one's faith. I'm not sure where Mr. Walsh believes our soul resides in the body, but I don't think that having a wholistic view of body and soul--that the two are completely intertwined instead of one residing in the other--makes one "materialistic" in their faith. It is simply a different perspective of how God formed us in our creation. 

"To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless."

I found this quote particularly interesting because I happen to come from a family that suffers from addiction. If you have ever gone to an AA/NA/Al-Anon meeting, then you know that the first step of the infamous 12 Steps is this: 
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable. 
This is said specifically to address the fact that unlike any other "choice" an addict makes in his or her life, a "choice" regarding the addiction is fueled by the disease. It does not mean someone did not make a choice to drink, it simply means that the choice to drink was inhibited by one's diseased mind. It brings understanding to the rationality of the mind behind the action. This actually gives hope rather than stealing it. There is a relief in finally being enlightened to the fact that you don't have these thoughts or make these choices because you are a bad person, but because you suffer from a disease that debilitates your mental state of health. If an addict overdoses, the report states exactly that--but the fact that the addict overdosed because of his addiction shines a light on the addict's mental health at the time. 

"Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression."

As someone who has suffered from depression, and whose loved ones also have suffered from various mental conditions, I can only sigh at such an incredibly ignorant statement. I wonder if this is what Mr. Walsh meant by "there are important truths we can take from the suicide of a rich and powerful man..." Perhaps that money and power may be able to buy the best medicine and treatments, but it can't buy joy? So this must mean that medicine and treatments can't fix depression--only joy can?

Mr. Walsh suggested that those who didn't have a spiritual mindset oversimplified the disease of depression. Sadly, this statement shows that the person simplifying the condition is him. His statement of joy being the only remedy or hero would by default mean that Robin Williams (and any other person who suffers from depression) just didn't have enough joy in his life. It takes an incredible amount of judgment to assume that a person did not have enough joy to save him. This implies that Robin's wife and children were not enough. This implies that there was more they could have done or been to provide a right amount of joy to defeat his disease. This must be the case since he stated "The two [joy and depression] cannot coexist."

This places a weight of blame on loved ones of the depressed. This also places a burden of finding joy on the depressed themselves. A disease is something out of our control. Therefore, we cannot simply force ourselves to feel joy. And what is scarrier is the thought that some people suffering from this disease may try to fake joy in order to defeat depression, feeling like failures (or making their loved ones feel like failures) if they ever admit they cannot overcome the weight of depression on their lives. 

In the end, there is one thing I do agree with Mr. Walsh on, so I'll end with one last quote:

"If you are thinking about suicide, don’t keep it inside. Tell someone.
Never give up the fight.
There is always hope."


  1. I don't know who Mr. Walsh is but he certainly does not sound qualified to talk about depression and suicide in any shape, way, or form.
    I think your rebuttals were really spot on.

  2. Thank you for this. You see, we NEED this reminder in our lives on a daily basis because the disease needs us to forget.

    Sometimes the only reminder we have that can save our lives is the reminder that we are crazy.