Suicide and the media
I read a Matt Walsh post titled, “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” I’m not going to link to it here, because it’s click bait and I hate that guy. But he basically claims that depression is caused by lack of spirituality and refusal to experience joy, and suggests that depressed people should just magically find these things to feel better.
His comments about how the cure for depression is spirituality and “joy” are absurd. It’s true, people who are deeply religious are statistically less likely to commit suicide, but there are many reasons for this. Spiritual people are more likely to be morally opposed to suicide. They are more likely to have strong support and to be optimistic. But spirituality is not something that a deeply depressed person can just suddenly “find.” To say that becoming spiritual will fix your suicidal thoughts is assigning false correlation. Spirituality doesn’t cure suicidal ideation; it’s more likely that the things that make you spiritual also make you less prone to consider suicide.
Showing up at church or trying to tell yourself to be more positive are not cures for depression and certainly not for suicidal ideation. Like Williams, many suicidal people are surrounded by family and friends and colleagues who love them and want to help them, and it’s still not enough.
Changing the thought processes of a suicidal person is possible, but it takes time and work and help from a professional. For people who wish to do this in a way that utilizes spiritual teachings, there are pastoral counselors. But to insist that simply becoming more spiritual will magically cure suicidal thoughts is a profound oversimplification and also shows a deep misunderstanding of mental illness. There is no magic “spiritual” or “joyful” switch that we can flip. If there was, no one would be depressed or suicidal.
He also makes a point about the rhetoric surrounding Williams’ death that is a valid one. I was disturbed by comments about how “he’s free,” “he’s at peace,” etc. The pictures of Aladdin hugging Genie and saying, “You’re free”? That is not the message we should be sending about suicide.
Did you know that overall rates of suicide go up significantly after a prominent public figure commits suicide? Especially among young people. There is a glorification of this terrible tragedy in the media, and people present suicide as a path to peace.
While I do believe that depressed people are ill, I do not see suicide as a path to peace and freedom. There is nothing peaceful or freeing about suicide. Suicide compounds sadness and leaves a trail of devastation that will poison the people who love you. Williams is gone, and his family and friends are left to pick up the pieces; to wonder if they could have stopped this tragedy by loving him more; to wonder why he would do something so devastating and permanent and final. There is no peace or freedom in suicide. There is only destruction.
To present suicide as an escape from the pain of depression is to tell millions of depressed, desperate, impressionable young people that they, too, can be free of the misery of depression if they commit suicide. That’s irresponsible.
Instead, we should be focusing on alternatives: therapy and medication and the hard work required to get through it and, yes, spirituality, but only when it’s combined with the help of a professionally trained counselor.
We should be discussing the devastating legacy that people who commit suicide leave behind. The loved ones of people who commit suicide are far more likely to commit suicide themselves, and likely to fall into deep depression and experience complicated grief.
I do not pretend to know an easy answer. Clawing out of the depths of depression is hard. I have been there myself. We should be open about how hard it is so that people who are going through it don’t mistakenly believe that they’re doing it wrong or that it’s impossible just because it’s not easy. People struggling with depression need to know what successful treatment looks like and see and hear from people who have survived it.
It’s not easy, but as long as you are waking up each morning, there is hope that you will find the treatment that works for you. There is something or someone out there who can help you. Suicide robs you of that possibility.
It’s not possible to just “choose joy” when you are depressed, but I do believe you can choose hope. As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Believe that you are loved, you are valued, and eventually things will get better. Don’t leave the people you love to sort through the destruction of your final act of desperation. Call someone and tell them. Give them a chance to help you find hope again. Keep going.