Let’s just get this out of the way right off the bat. I’ve heard others talk about things they’ve seen Matt Walsh say and/or do that left them with very poor opinions of him, but since I wasn’t there at the time, I won’t make any judgments about that. After the emotional turmoil of the past few days, I’m just not in the mood to pick sides in any fight, particularly when I have reason to like and/or respect people on both sides. This is purely my response to the fiasco that has erupted over the past couple of days after Matt published a blog post about Robin Williams, depression, and suicide. I don’t think Matt’s evil, cruel, or heartless. I am appalled but not shocked at the vitriol that many have aimed not only at him, but even at his wife and family. I’m a fan of sarcasm and snark and employ it frequently, but wishing someone would die or that they would lose someone they love to suicide is pure cruelty. The world is full of mean, angry people, and the anonymity of the web just makes them less likely to rein in their viciousness. In short, a lot of people out there on the internet suck.
I have spent the days since RW’s death having many online discussions about depression in general and suicide in particular. I’ve struggled to help others understand how someone in the throes of a severe depression can reach the horrible conclusion that suicide is the only solution. I’ve had some argue with me and others thank me for helping them see the topic more clearly. The fact remains, though, that it is impossible to truly explain how and why someone begins to consider suicide. As recently as earlier this afternoon, I would have also said that it’s equally impossible to explain why some suffering from severe depression act on their suicidal thoughts while others do not. However, thanks to Stephanie Zubcic PhD, who provided a link to this article, I now have a better understanding of that hard question. If you know someone who is depressed or still think suicide is purely a choice made by weak, selfish, or cowardly people, you should read it. Perhaps it will open your eyes a bit.
So, back to Matt Walsh. I readily admit that I have read several articles that he’s written, and by several, I don’t mean most or even half, though there have been quite a few. I’ve shared a few of them as well. I usually agree with most of what he says, though perhaps not always with the way in which he says it. His thoughts on depression are the first time I’ve ever read anything he wrote that left me feeling…uncomfortable or offended, though. I originally intended to simply leave a comment on his blog, but quickly realized that my “comment” was more of a post, so I’m going to write it here and send him a link. He can follow it or not. I’m quite certain that he’ll be getting thousands of new comments, emails, tweets, and Facebook responses, so I don’t know that he’ll find me in the midst of that torrent. If he doesn’t, that’s fine. I merely feel the need to address the problems I have with some of what he said.
Before I post my thoughts, though, I will proved a couple of links to the specific posts he made that I am addressing.
My response follows:
I read you regularly and agree with most of what you say, but I struggled with the original post because it simply felt less compassionate than preachy. I give you the benefit of the doubt, however, because I know that tone is difficult to impart via typed words and when emotions are running high, it’s all too easy to ascribe the wrong intent to the words of others.
You touched on some points in the follow up that made me personally feel a bit better about things you didn’t say in the first post. Here are a couple of my biggest problems – for lack of a better word at the moment – with the posts, though.
Quoted from the first post:
“Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual.”
“I can understand atheists who insist that depression must only be a disease of the brain, as they believe that our entire being is contained by, and comprised of, our physical bodies. 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.”
I’ll just pause here for a moment to let you know that I find the declaration you make in that final sentence deeply offensive. I have been living with severe clinical depression my entire adult life. I’m not a “spiritualist,” I’m a born again Christian. Nor am I in any way an “adherent of philosophical materialism.” (The definition of materialist.) I have been a Christian longer than you’ve been alive, Matt. I realize that’s no guarantee of spiritual maturity – if it were, Paul wouldn’t have felt the need to complain about supposedly mature Christians needing milk instead of meat. I’m not going to spend untold amounts of time trying to verify my spiritual maturity, though. The post is long enough as it is. Suffice it to say that your dismissal of anyone who does not share your views on the nature of the connection between the body and the soul (as well as the Spirit, which the Bible makes clear is not the same thing) comes across as arrogant.
If the argument is to be made that no mental illness can exist without being a spiritual illness as well, then it follows that you must admit that the reverse is also true. Times of spiritual doubt or questioning, rebellion, or backsliding should cause a corresponding physical affliction. I know people who think this way. They’re usually the ones who blame every single “bad” thing that happens in anyone’s life on some sin they’re refusing to repent of.
It boils down to this, if depression is a physical illness that affects how the brain and body function, resulting in manifestations of symptoms defined as “mental illness,” then it must also be conceded that it can be a purely physical illness. You state that theists should not declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in the brain/body. I say you should not declare unequivocally that it cannot be. This article lends further credence to the physicality of depression, including suicide risk: Genetic Biomarker Identified That May Predict Suicide Risk
I also read the article about you on The Blaze and this specific bit jumped out at me because it’s precisely what I noticed from your first post as well.
“Walsh called it ironic that some Christians will turn to prayer to address physical ailments like cancer, but won’t do the same when it comes to depression. While he said relying solely on prayer wouldn’t be something he’d endorse, the decision by some believers not to turn to God to address mental anguish confounds him.”
I absolutely believe there is profound help to be found in seeking spiritual help in addition to physical remedies. There is no doubt at all that I would have suffered far more than I have had I not had God to turn to. Yet, the reality remains that I do have depression. I have been severely depressed even while crying out to God. I have been so lost in the darkness that I could barely breathe, even while serving God daily. I understand that you quantified your words about Christians not seeking God during times of mental anguish with the inclusion of the word “some,” but again, this comes across as a sort of indictment. I’m not saying that’s how you meant it, only that I can understand how it might be perceived that way.
I know you never said that depressed and/or suicidal people would be “cured” or “healed” if they just embraced joy and hope or if they prayed a more, but you have ruled out the possibility that a person can be physically ill with depression without being equally spiritually unwell. If that were true, then the only successful way to combat depression would be with the necessary inclusion of some form of spiritual therapy, defined however you like. My treatment for the severe depression I’ve been living with for as long as you’ve been alive has included medications, psychotherapy, and cognitive therapy. Those are physical things that impact my physical body and the thought processes of my brain. They are not spiritual. My spiritual life is an intrinsic part of me, though it is not a part of my depression beyond the point where I seek God’s help to resist the pull of the depression and His guidance when determining what medicine, doctor, treatment, therapist, etc. is the best, right choice to help me continue fighting.
You are absolutely correct that love is the most powerful force in the universe, particularly the love of God for His creations. You are also completely correct when you state that there is always hope, and that we are “meant for joy.” You are undeniably right to state that we must make a conscious decision to reach for joy, to see hope, to deny the darkness that seems so powerful a force in the world. All of that is completely true. Here is where you went wrong:
Many intelligent folks have pointed out that suicide is a choice, but one made by a mind submerged in an unspeakable darkness. Suicide is a choice, but one chosen under great duress. [snip]
But ALL destructive choices are made under these circumstances. ALL. Every single one. The more destructive the choice, the more troubled the mind.
Destructive choices are not all made under duress or by “a mind submerged in an unspeakable darkness.” People make destructive choices every single day that are not born out of mental illness but out of selfishness or lack of knowledge or rebellion or any other number of things that may or may not have some connection to some measure of emotional distress, but that are not remotely comparable to the horror of severe mental illness. A person who chooses to smoke because they enjoy it even though they know it comes with a number of risks isn’t the same as someone who cuts or commits other acts of self harm in an effort to find some measure of control amidst an overwhelming maelstrom of mental and emotional anguish. To suggest otherwise is profoundly disingenuous.
Likewise, suggesting that suicide is a choice (in the most technical terms) that many suicidal persons don’t actually see as a choice does not automatically equal equating it to dying from leukemia or in a car wreck or any other manner of death that is wholly beyond the control of any person.
Even if they take medicine, they have to choose to take it. If they talk to someone, they must choose to speak. If they seek help at a facility, they must choose to go. In some cases people are committed against their will, but eventually they also must choose.
For someone who made a point of discussing how complex depression is, I find it absurd that you would try to then turn around and boil it all down to something this simplistic. Suggesting that choosing to reject suicide is the same as choosing to take meds or go to therapy or enter a psychiatric facility is like stating that choosing whether or not to try an experimental treatment after being diagnosed with terminal stage IV cancer is the same as choosing whether to eat a salad because its healthy or a slice of pizza because that’s what you’re craving. They are simply not comparable. At all.
I choose to take my meds and go to therapy because I never, ever, want to return to the absolute horror of the blackness of a major depressive episode. When I was in the depths of my first major episode, I wanted nothing more than to not be there. No depressed person wants to be depressed. You know this. You’ve admitted it yourself. We do not want to be depressed. We do not want to feel unworthy of love or hope or happiness. We want the pain to STOP.
What would you say to someone who tells you they are suicidal and they feel they have no choice but to kill themselves? What do you say when confronted with that specific statement? Have you been confronted with it? I have.
And do you know what I said?
Yes, you feel like you have no choice — but you do.
You feel like you have to leave – but you don’t.
You feel like there is no help — but there is.
You feel worthless — but you aren’t.
You feel like nobody can love you — but they do.
Your answers to the question of what we should tell a person who admits that they are contemplating suicide are not wrong. The question you did not ask, though, was “What next?” Shouting at someone standing on a ledge, telling them not to jump, is obviously what anyone with any shred of humanity would do. Telling a person considering suicide that they are loved, that there is hope, that they have a different choice is all fine and well, but it amounts to absolutely nothing at all if it isn’t immediately followed by action, because as much as they want to escape the nightmare of depression, they most likely won’t believe what you’re saying. They may nod and smile and say, “Okay,” then turn right around and follow through on ending their life because no matter what you say to them, they may very well still think they have no other choice. They may have already made up their mind that suicide is the only answer. And this is why your posts are so potentially dangerous.
Your focus was and still is on the choice. Even when you talk about how to confront someone considering that choice, what you fail to do is state unequivocally that while trying to talk them out of it is good and right, what anyone in that position should be doing is calling a suicide prevention hotline. The moment anyone starts talking about ending their life or wanting to escape or being ready to give up or too tired to fight any longer, you should be telling them that you love them while driving them to the nearest emergency room or dialing 911 or a hotline.
You never even talk about that, Matt, and that is what makes both of your posts so terrible. It isn’t that everything you say is wrong, it’s that you’re preaching about the spirituality of suicide instead of saying in loud, clear, unmistakable terms that priority number one is never, ever, under any circumstances, take talk of suicide from anyone with anything less than deadly seriousness.
I’ll assume you thought such basic truth was implied and didn’t need to be mentioned beyond your, “If you are thinking about suicide, don’t keep it inside. Tell someone. Never give up the fight. There is always hope.” You were wrong, though, and your omission of the importance of addressing suicide as more than a philosophical or spiritual topic is a huge part of what bothers me most about both of these posts.
I like a lot of what you say, and agree with some parts of both posts. I find the reaction of the idiots on the web that wished you or your family harm, grief, or suffering every bit as abhorrent as the twisted sickos who scream for people on ledges to jump. But as smart as you can be on a variety of topics, you can also be completely wrong. You’re wrong here, not necessarily in intent, but certainly in method.
I’m quite certain that many people out there agree with you completely. I’m sure that some who are or have been depressed found comfort or encouragement in some of what you said. But it’s just as possible that someone out there saw “Never give up the fight. There is always hope,” and heard, in their head, in their own voice, “You are such a worthless piece of crap. You’re a coward. You aren’t fighting. You aren’t even trying! You’re hopeless!” Because that’s what depression deep enough to make a person consider suicide does. It straight up lies, and no amount of talk will change that. It takes intensive therapy to learn how to recognize the lies and reject them. It might also take medications to help quell the worst of them just so you can find the energy and willpower to even try the therapy. So, trying to reduce suicide down to a simple yes or no choice is, frankly, asinine.
I hope you see and read this. I don’t expect you to respond. I’m not seeking recognition or “hits” for my blog. I have no desire to become the next internet sensation. I mostly felt the need to respond with this much depth because I like you and because every single day that I wake up, I am grateful to not be in the hellish depths of a major depressive episode, and I want to do anything I can to help others understand the reality of depression. The moment I heard about Robin Williams’ death and saw that it was a suspected suicide, I was immediately taken straight back to the darkest moments of my life, when I found myself facing that same terrible, desperate choice, and my heart broke all over again. It always does when I hear that someone has become so desperate that they saw suicide as the only option.
I sincerely hope and pray that you continue to win the fight against whatever personal sorrow or anguish that you are living with. I bear you no ill will and hold no animosity at all toward you. I will continue to read what you write when I come across it and will share it when I feel led to. God bless you, Matt, and your family.