Famous blogger Matt Walsh has kicked off a bit of a tempest by writing two posts about Robin Williams’ death. The first one, basically, tried to draw a bright-line boundary between the concepts of depression and suicide. This interpretive framework (and Walsh’s reasons for wanting to drawing this sharp boundary) is pretty well summarized here:
First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. 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. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.
Then, after the post went viral and lots of people took issue with it, Walsh wrote a somewhat testy follow-up to: 1) decry the vitriol of individuals who misrepresented/misunderstood his first post and 2) provide more detailed justification of his position.
Among the many voices I’ve seen either directly or indirectly rebutting Walsh’s argument….
Pastor Jean-Daniel Williams, who writes:
If I commit suicide, perhaps, as you claim, it will be ‘’my’’ choice. But I doubt it. I have spent more than half my life listening to my own body betray me, my own mind telling me that it would be better to die. . . . Living is the pro-active choice. Is suicide a choice? It has been a free choice every time I have ever said no so far. I have chosen to say no. That is not because we can blindly, arrogantly, say that it is a moral choice, though. It is because I have been really lucky that I am (still) healthy enough to say no. The thing is, saying ‘’no’’ to suicide is evidence that I am healthy enough to say no. But, if I should ever commit suicide, it will not be because ‘’I’’ made the choice, but because my depression would have.
Kristi, on the blog “What is Matt Walsh wrong about today?” provides some valuable information about the effect of depression on one’s cognitive and decision-making capabilities:
Matt says suicide is a choice, but what makes a choice a choice is the presence of logic, reason, and objectivity to evaluate its merits. Depression can rob your brain of the ability to think that way. My friend Derek, a pharmacist, knows a thing or two about this. In his own words:
“In a euthymic (or normal, mildly-positive) attitude, the effect of a choice is either a reward, perhaps the blast of dopamine from a great run, or a detriment, the exhaustion of inactivity. In a person with clinical depression, both sides of that choice respond with a similar lack of neurotransmission.
A patient suffering from severe depression may not even be able to tell the choice apart. Even if objectively they know that running is good, couch is bad, they will experience the same neurochemical state regardless.”
[. . . ] So no, depression doesn’t appear on autopsy reports. But when a 500-lb thirty-year old drops dead at his desk, the autopsy reads “cardiac arrest” rather than “morbid obesity”. As usual, Matt is glossing over nuances. He thinks things are black and white—that a choice is a choice. He’s wrong. In absence of a healthy neurological system, not all actions are choices.
[SIDEBAR] Even though the fat activist in me is yearning to give significant bandwidth to the false assumptions and lack of medical evidence in Kristi’s facile conflation of “cardiac arrest” and “morbid obesity,” I’m mostly going to let it slide because I’m on a different topical horse tonight. Allow me merely a gentle hat tip to my HAES basics post, my critique of BMI, and my puzzlement at the unproductive insanity of fat-shaming. [/SIDEBAR]
[SIDEBAR THE SECOND] I am clearly way too ill-informed about the blogosphere as I hang out typing furiously in my little isolated corner of the wild, wild web. I don’t think I had ever heard of Matt Walsh till this folderol, yet he’s a prominent enough Internet figure to have earned his own dedicated counter-narrative. I don’t know if I’m impressed or horrified. [/SIDEBAR THE SECOND]
Although he doesn’t name check Walsh at all, Peter DeGiglio might as well be writing a targeted counterpoint against Walsh, articulating more reasons for understanding Williams’ death as being caused by the disease of depression:
I tried to get the old friend to understand by using my go-to comparison in this conversation. I asked, “Well, what if it was cancer?” His answer came back like a clichèd line from an after-school special. He proclaimed, “Well, that you can’t help!”
And therein, my friends, lies the problem in our dialogue on mental illness. [. . .]
What I believe people need to understand is that Robin Williams took his own life because he lost his battle with a serious medical condition. Take again my cancer analogy. Think about it: The last possible stage of any type of cancer that can effect a person is death. When one loses their battle with cancer, they die. The cancer cells take over and shut down the body for good. The same can be said for Bi-Polar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder (aka simply “Depression”). The last possible stage of these diseases is death. The difference is that instead of cancer cells destroying the body, the body is destroyed instead by thoughts and feelings, causing the afflicted person to be convinced that the only way to end the suffering is through death at their own hands.
Essentially, he had “Thought Cancer”
I feel half-vulture playing all this out on the screen. Yet another fan doing pop psychology when a celebrity dies, and doing so without much regard for the feelings of those individuals who are actually, acutely, intimately affected by his death.
So why am I even sailing these rocky waters?
Because however much I disagree with Walsh’s perspective, no matter how fervently I believe that those suggesting we say Williams died of depression are onto a deep psychological and spiritual truth — well, here’s an uncomfortable truth of my own.
Part of me wants Walsh to be right.
I want to believe that my depression is something I can rein in, get under control. I’ve been really lucky to be able to manage the condition for several years now without prescriptions. This is nothing I’m saying as a mark of strength, of health, or of any other sort of virtue. The operative word is “luck.” Yes, I work damn hard to maintain my psychological health, but I also know you can do everything “right” and still be challenged with disease. So, yeah, I am deeply grateful for my good fortune, but I know that tomorrow’s health and tomorrow’s brain chemistry are far from guaranteed.
It’d be easier if Walsh were right. More comforting, in a childish control-freak kind of way. To know that I just need to find and follow the proper recipe so’s to be sure that I will never have to stare down the maw of despair and depression again.
But that’s not how life works.
Image credit: http://en.webfail.com/855852d8b8b