August 13, 2014 5 Comments
In the wake of actor Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, internet bête noire Matt Walsh (predictably enough) published a controversial post on the topic. You can click through and read the whole thing: in a nutshell, he asserts that suicide is always, and in every case, a conscious choice on behalf of the deceased, and that depression is as much a spiritual matter as it is a medical one. Normally I would allow such a post to pass by uncommented upon, but it engendered such mixed reactions among my social media circles, that I thought it worthwhile to share my own thoughts on the matter and illustrate where Walsh’s hubris and lack of knowledge led him astray.
On the first point, Walsh’s primary sin here is one of hubris. He mentions his own experience in passing and, while I have no knowledge of his medical history, from the way he talks about depression, it seems that he makes the all-too-common mistake of conflating “being depressed” or going through depressive/melancholic episodes in life with the medical condition of clinical depression. The former is an emotional state, in most cases transitory and dependent upon the events in one’s life, while the latter is genuine mental illness, often chronic, and with almost no bearing on what is happening in the life of the sufferer.
One of the tragic realities of mental health is that those who suffer from illnesses or conditions quite often find it next to impossible to explain to healthy individuals what their struggles are like, in part because afflictions of the mind often bear a superficial resemblance to those undergone by everyone else. The flip side of this coin is that many people erroneously assume that they possess an accurate understanding of living with a mental health condition is like, based on a faulty assumption that it is similar or identical their own experiences, when really the resemblance is only superficial.
I have Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, and there have been multiple times when I have been exasperated at how this dynamic plays out. For example, I might mention in conversation that I really struggle with procrastination, and receive a reply that goes something like, “Oh yeah, that’s a problem for me too. But you know, all you really need to do is just buckle down and get stuff done.” How do I even begin to explain to the person that, no, you don’t know what it is like? Where other people will experience of feeling of reticence to start a major project, born of temptations towards weariness or simply fatigue, I experience a paralyzing burst of anxiety and trepidation that makes me feel as if my mind and body alike are locked in chains, and the longer I am unable to move and the closer a deadline approaches, the tighter the chains become.
The same principle applies for clinical depression. Being of a melancholic temperament myself, I’ve gone through depressive periods in my life at various dark times and struggled with suicidal thoughts, but I have never suffered from depression. My experience is a categorically different one from those who deal with depression, because the root causes are fundamentally different. It would be arrogant for me to assume that I understood the mental state, anguish, and toxic despair of one in the depths of depression, and that I could accurately assess their ability to make competent moral judgments relating to themselves and their own self-worth.
Sadly, this assumption is exactly what Matt Walsh did in his post. And while he is correct in that the victims of suicide still technically possess the choice to live or die, if said victims perceive that they no longer possess this choice, it is effectively the same as if they have been stripped of it in reality.
On Walsh’s second point, that depression is as much a spiritual matter as a medical one, his piece contains a core of truth but badly misses the mark. First, his assessment of the vital role that the spiritual life plays in these struggles holds much truer when applied to emotion-based, melancholic episodes. This, combined with how blithely he brushes aside the genuine medical realities of clinical depression, serve as further indication that he conflates “being depressed” with depression. Were they one in the same, his argument would carry water. Unfortunately, they are not.
Second, while it would be germane to ascertain whether there is a spiritual component to an individual patient’s struggle if one were recommending a course of treatment, it is hardly relevant to the point he is examining. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a condition of spiritual death (brought about perhaps by a life of dissolution or promiscuity) causes a particular individual to fall into serious clinical depression, and they commit suicide. What is at question is not how they got to that point, but whether or not their judgment by that point was so seriously impaired by their illness as to diminish or even destroy their capacity to make rational decisions.
The plain fact of the matter is, when a person takes their own life, we have no way of knowing under what mental pressures they labored, and how their illness distorted their capacity to make rational, moral judgments and see the world as it exists outside of the fog of their illness. Depression is a genuine mental health condition; this is a fact that no serious person or institution disputes. Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, acknowledges the light that modern medicine has cast on this area, and therefore points to the mystery in which these tragedies are ultimately shrouded.
“Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 2282-2283)
As Psalm 19 says, we ourselves can not be completely certain that we are totally free of sin, and therefore we must ask God to pardon us from the offenses that are hidden to us. Given this truth of Sacred Scripture, it is the height of arrogance and ignorance to presume to gaze into the mind of another soul, or a whole class of peoples, and pretend to enjoy accurate knowledge of their thoughts, motivations, interior struggles, and moral culpability. This power belongs only to the Almighty.