On Christianity and Depression… and Why Matt Walsh Is Wrong

I swear I’ll get back to sharing poor parenting techniques soon. That is, after all, what I do best. Like this week, while we’re camping, and my greatest and most profound discipline strategy has been to withhold Doritos. (Just FYI – terrible strategy. It’s worked out exactly as well as you’d expect, which is to say, not at all.) On the bright side, though, my kids have rallied the other kids at the camp ground to form a vandalism ring for the purpose of drawing chalk butts underneath every available picnic table. Ours and others’. So, you know, my parenting isn’t a total loss if you’re willing to consider rampant chalk vandalism a good way to make friends.

Unfortunately, my heart has been relentless these past three days, thinking about depression, suicide, what drives people to it, and how we might help each other. And I’m about to do something I’ve rarely done, which is contradict another writer by name, because I believe Matt Walsh’s post, titled “Robin Williams didn’t die from his disease, he died from his choice,” is misleading to the point of causing harm and endangering the most vulnerable among us.

In the interest of full disclosure and so you can see and evaluate my bias up front, I will tell you this: Matt is an excellent writer with often brilliant word craft, and I’ve blocked his content from my feed. It’s not because he doesn’t make good points sometimes. He, like the rest of us who are human, is right and wrong with striking regularity, and though I emphatically disagree with many of his positions,  I do agree with some.

No; it’s not his positions on issues that bothers me the most. It’s the fact that he writes with disdain for anyone who disagrees with him. With disregard for people whose experiences differ from his own. With simplistic straw man arguments which he valiantly breaks down. It makes me angry and sad because he’s taking part in the destruction of civil dialogue as though there’s no room for any opinions but his own. Which is great for page views and terrible for people.

Still, I wouldn’t write a piece opposing Matt did I not believe his words may cause people in desperate need of help for depression to decline to seek treatment. To think that “making a choice” is enough to combat mental illness. To minimize symptoms. To reinforce the patently false idea that depression is a spiritual ailment.

Now, Matt makes two good points in his piece:

  1. That we should consider whether our comments that Robin Williams is now “free” or “happy” or “in a better place” (all of which I believe) might drive those already considering suicide closer to the brink, seeking that relief themselves… food for thought… and,
  2. “…we are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. And as long as we can still draw breath, there is joy and love to be found here.” TRUE!

But the broader implication of what he writes – his thesis statement that Robin Williams’ death is due to choice, not disease – is disturbing because it’s only half true.

“It’s a tragic choice, truly,” Matt writes, “but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. 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.”

Of course suicide is a choice. Of course it is. And a bad decision. Always. But it does attack just like a cancer and descend like a tornado. It comes out nowhere, without storm warnings or news bulletins or a shelter in which to hide until it’s passed. We must learn to recognize the stealthy and secretive ways depression comes upon us if we have a hope of combating it. Unfortunately, for the person with scrambled brain chemistry, suicide can be a choice that is so deceiving as to make sense. THAT IS THE DISEASE OF CLINICAL DEPRESSION. THAT’S WHAT IT IS. That’s what it does. Depresssion lies and lies and lies. Believably. Convincingly. Compellingly. So that when the person who commits suicide does it, he or she often does so thinking it’s a favor to their family, to their friends, and that the world will be better off without them. Are they wrong? OF COURSE THEY ARE. Did they choose to die? OF COURSE THEY DID. But they did so because the disease destroyed their ability to make the best choice.

This is the first place in that blog post that Matt is off base. Robin Williams died of a choice AND a disease. To discount the disease does terrible, horrific harm to others who need treatment.

Matt writes, “Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own.” In fact, depression does appear on autopsy reports. Cause of death can be listed as suicide (example: Don Cornelius’s autopsy report) with depression listed in the synopsis. 

The next place Matt’s argument falls apart is in his contention that depression is a spiritual ailment. “Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual,” he says. But no. No, it’s not. Let’s be very clear on this point. Clinical Depression is a medical diagnosis

Can one be in spiritual distress? Absolutely. Spiritual crisis? Certainly. Does depression affect our spirit? You bet. In the same way other chronic illnesses do. It is trying to our faith and to our understanding of a loving God. 

But a spiritual crisis is not the same as clinical depression, not a component of it, nor should it be equated with such. Just like we wouldn’t say cancer has a spiritual cause, we must not say it about clinical depression. To do so is to buy into faith-healing extremism. 

Instead, clinical depression is, literally, a diagnosable, treatable, medical condition. One that alters brain chemistry and the ability to make logical, lifesaving decisions. Depression, quite simply, “depresses” or pushes down the brain’s ability to function normally. To say otherwise is irresponsible, reinforces the stigma of mental illness, and will undoubtedly make those of his readers who suffer from depression less likely to seek the medical treatment they need. They will think, based on Matt’s statement that depression is both medical and spiritual, and his final point, “in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression,” that they must simply try to be more joyful. More spiritual. More Godly. Which will almost always fail. Because MEDICAL CONDITION.

Consider my friend Samantha’s* story, shared on Facebook yesterday, before Matt’s blog post was released:  

[My depression] started with general discontentment. I thought if I focused on things I was thankful for, and actively pursued gratitude, and prayed for a heart open to God, all would be better.

Sadly to say, I just felt the pressure to be happy and like I was constantly failing with no reason; my life was great, I felt my unhappiness was selfishness, so I tried serving others and family, trying hard to choose Joy in the darkness. It didn’t help.

I was praying for God’s help, but I just felt people judging me and rejecting me and putting more pressure on my life to enjoy it, to see that I am blessed, which led to guilt for not feeling that way. I didn’t want life to be this way nor did I want to be this angry, raging woman but there I was.

I was in survival mode, trying not to drown.

This disease came at me from nowhere and I didn’t recognize it for over a year, until it became a beast and took me over…

Listen, friends. Treatment for depression is not about “getting right with God.” It’s not about replacing depression with joy. Such simplifications are misleading, misinformed, and patently false.

I drove by a church reader board several years ago that read “we’re too blessed to be depressed.” And this sums up the church’s historic problem dealing well with mental health.  In Christian circles, there’s often much internal and external pressure to think this very real medical issue is a spiritual battle or a matter of faith. The truth is, we can seek God continuously, and long for Joy, and know God is with us in the mess, and still depression can consume us.

We seek medical help for our kids when they have strep throat. We seek medical help for our kids when they have asthma. We must learn to take our own medical needs as seriously. Including mental health.

In short (too late!), yesterday’s blog post by Matt about Robin Williams reinforces the stigma about mental illness, contains a significant element of spiritual shaming, and will undoubtedly make those of his readers who suffer from depression less likely to seek the medical treatment they need. Which is dangerous to people’s health and may, in the end, prove deadly. 

We are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. So, if you are depressed; if you are inexplicably and constantly irritable or angry or tired or numb; if you feel like you are drowning slowly; if you suspect your brain is lying to you; SEEK TREATMENT. See a doctor. See a therapist. Tell your best friend. Come up with a safety plan. Get help. 

Help is out there. You are not spiritually weak to seek it. Your choices alone cannot overcome the Darkness. You are not failing spiritually. You may be ill. And you can recover. There is hope. Hope in God, yes. Hope for your spirit and soul. AND hope for your body and brain. 

……….

*Samantha’s story is shared here with permission. I’ve changed her name to protect her anonymity.

What is Clinical Depression?
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Signs of Clinical Depression
Warning Signs of Mental Illness

If You See Depression in Others:

  1. Educate yourself. The links above are good places to start.
  2. Name your concern – say, bluntly, “I think you may be depressed.” Tell them why. Ask them to seek medical help.
  3. Keep naming it. It took my friends more than a year to convince me to seek help. I needed every encouragement and their relentless pursuit of health on my behalf. Remember: the depressed person’s brain isn’t working well. He or she may not be able to see that they need help.
  4. Create a safety plan
  5. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline.
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ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
66 comments
  1. […] or Zoloft? by Jamie the Very Worst MissionaryRobin Williams: A Broken Crayon. by Aaron SmalletsOn Christianity and Depression… and Why Matt Walsh Is Wrong by Beth […]

  2. You and Matt are two of my favourite bloggers!

    I’m not sure that he said all the things you think he did. Whether by accident or design, he said things that sounded quite similar to some very wrong ideas that exist about depression, but I don’t think he said them himself. For example, he said depression was spiritual, but he meant as well as medical, not instead of. He didn’t mean people should ditch their meds and just pray, he meant depression is so all-consuming it gets its claws into your spirit as well.

    Have you read his follow-up post where he responds to some of the misunderstandings of his original post?

    I’m not saying he’s blameless – he probably phrases things in terms likely to get attention and page views at the expense of clarity – but I think the actual opinions he expresses are OK.

  3. As a crisis counselor who performs suicide assessments and involuntary detentions I can tell you suicide is generally speaking not a choice. The individual is usually so sick from depression that the exit is all they can see. In essence, a delusion. By definition a delusion is a thought that cannot be changed regardless of whatever rational argument is presented to the individual. The only way to counter a delusion is to find something external that will result if the behavior occurs such as “who will take care of your dog if you die?” for example. The symptoms of delusion and anosognosia are true of all major mental illnesses and is true of major depression in severe cases.

    1. So, at the point when an individual is not capable of keeping themselves safe a civil commitment needs to occur until the patient is stabilized.

  4. I perceive that both Matt Walsh’s and this post’s response are both very individual-oriented, or from the psychological perspective. Just me and my emotions that I handle like an adult, or me and my chemistry that I need to find a way to correct them. Much of Christianity seems to be perceived as the single pathway of “me and my relationship with God,” and strongly claiming depression as a clinical diagnosis is a step in the direction of reinforcing our individualistic approaches to life, which I *do* think was part of Walsh’s emphasis. “We are all meant to lead joyful lives, and the key to unlocking our joy isn’t hidden under a pile of money and accolades.”

    Whenever depression is discussed, I would like to propose a deeper investigation into the surrounding social context of the individual that helped drive them to that point. Especially in our modern complex, socially-fragmened world, I think emphasis on the role of the new testament Church’s (for community, belonging, and group discernment, perhaps even a-la ‘civic discourse’) would do well for many individuals in bringing forth the Kingdom to be seen and experienced.

  5. So alcoholism is a disease, too, yes? If a person under the influence of alcohol gets into a car and kills someone, this is sin, right? Or if I wake up one day and have a terrible migraine so that I can hardly stand, and in my stress and pain I scream at my child and slap her face. I am sinning. Or if I suffer from depression and hate myself and my life so badly that all I want is relief and find that relief in the arms of men who are not my husband, have I sinned? I think sometimes the Christian world (and let me bluntly say especially the female Chrustian world which prides itself on being compassionate) thinks making people feel bad is the only real sin, and in fact you wouldn’t know there was any other sin to hear them talk. There is terrible confusion, a terrible misuse of the concept of forgiveness.

    Without a deep understanding of the depths of sin, compassion and forgiveness are meaningless. Compassion that acts “as if their wound was not grievous” (as Jeremiah puts it) is misplaced and causes death. Not knowing the difference between Law (the righteous ways of God) and Gospel (the righteousness of Christ given freely to unholy humans) leads us to look for ways to not call sin sin and to stop even caring about what’s sin and what’s not and also to shut up those voices which do talk bluntly about Law and sin. But if you don’t know what Law and sin are, neither will you ever know what forgiveness is.

    Y’all who won’t let Matt Walsh call suicide a sin are withholding forgiveness from many who need it, since a knowledge of sin comes before a felt desire for forgiveness. Matt Walsh did not say depression was a sin, but he did bring up the point that it can lead to it just like alcoholism or a migraine can. But suicide IS sin, whether it comes from depression or rational thought or any other source. An out-of-one’s-full-control sin is not any less a sin. Just because the church has often been bad at knowing what to do with sinners (by offering only more Law instead of the balm of forgiveness) is no reason to stop calling sin sin. People need to know that it’s in the full ugliness and powerlessness and failure and idolatry and disease of our common human state–the place where we’re so messed up in mind, body, and/or spirit that we would despair even of life (like I imagine Robin Williams was)–that Jesus meets us. When we tell ourselves and each other that maybe our lives are a little messed up but we really couldn’t help it because of x, y, or z, there’s no sin price that Jesus paid, so who the heck needs him anyway? Sin and Jesus (the Bible’s big two subjects) hardly come up when Christians talk about this stuff, and I think that’s a bad mistake.

    1. I don’t think that talking about sin more is the answer. Here’s why: there are lots of definitions of sin, but I always think of it as anything that works against right relationship with God. It’s not quite the same as ‘wrong’, which is about unjust, dishonest or harmful actions. I feel that as a society, we can have civil discourse and come to common understanding of what constitutes ‘wrong’. Sin? That gets messy. There are honest disagreements among faithful folks about what is and isn’t sinful. Further, it seems arrogant to claim that is our place to comment on the state of someone else’s relationship with God. So I think it’s fine if someone wants to talk about sin from a personal perspective (When I do ‘x’, it is sin, because I feel that it works against my relationship with God.) I think it’s fine if we want to talk about what is right and wrong (helpful or destructive) for everyone. A society has to be able to define acceptable behavior. But talking about others’ sin seems really unhelpful. With one word, the conversation is over before it had a chance to get started. Matthew 7:3.

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