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. Did you read his post complaining about how people responded? My biggest qualm with what he said was that he did not talk about depression and how it affects people. He only went with what he has experienced himself. I do think it was messed up that people misinterpreted what he said and took it as far as they did, but when you have a blog that’s all over the internet, that’s bound to happen. Suck it up.
    Your post is great. Thank you especially for the information at the end.

  2. Thank you for writing this. Well said. I used to follow Matt’s blog until some months ago when he wrote an article against taking medication for depression. I couldn’t believe what he wrote, and with such ignorance. He has obviously never dealt with depression in his own life. So many Christians are ignorant. Even my own husband, who knows my own battle all too well, told my 6-year-old son that Robin Williams “didn’t trust God”, that that was why he’d taken his life. (when our son asked him why anyone would kill theirself.) I was stunned, and when I immediately contradicted him quietly, he fell silent and had nothing to say and just left for work. So awkward. Thanks again for speaking out.

  3. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece. Like you, I usually avoid Matt Walsh, but a friend had posted a link to his article on her facebook wall and like a glutton for punishment, I read it. As someone who has suffered from depression (and probably always will…thank goodness for medication), I was stunned with the ignorance that he continues to spread in regards to depression. I hope that twice as many people will read your post with your spot-on descriptions of what depression is and what it isn’t, than have read Matt’s post. We must raise awareness of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

  4. There are actually some mutations in a gene that can cause a predisposition to addictions and depression. It *IS* a medical issue! The gene is called MTHFR. I have this, and have had depression my whole life(I was also raised by alcoholics). But finding out that I have this, as well as working the Al-Anon program, have been THE best things that have ever happened to me. I am now taking methylated folic acid(because MTHFR deals with methylation…I can’t methylate properly), and some of my depression has lifted. I practice gratitude. I write. I say that I am sorry if I take on someone else’s stuff. But, most importantly of all, I HOPE. And that’s half the battle right there.

  5. Today is the first time I’ve read anything from either of your blogs, and I have to say that you’re way off base. Instead of arguing against what he said, you’re doing exactly what he said in his post: “We are so trained to ignore differing perspectives that the minute a person opens his mouth with a view diverging from our own, we block out his words and fill in the blanks with some caricature we concocted in our heads.” You’ve misrepresented him horribly in my opinion. You did him a disservice by “arguing” against things he never said, and I think your post would have been better if you’d just said what you felt needed to be said without starting with what you THOUGHT he said.

    1. Had you read this post before commenting, you would notice the quote marks around words taken verbatim from Matt’s original article. Disagreeing strongly but respectfully, with specificity, to the words he actually wrote to make his point is the definition of civil discourse.

      Commenting anonymously, making broad general and unsupported inflammatory statements on the other hand is the definition of Internet trolling.

  6. Excellent response, Beth, to Matt and a thoughtful, educated post to those who won’t read Matt’s. Thanks for taking the time to share your perspective. I couldn’t agree more.

  7. Thank you Beth for your comments on this. I so enjoy your writing and that of Mr. Walsh but Between the two of you, I have to agree with you on this point. I am not a depression sufferer nor do I ever want to be. I have a sister, sister In law and father that have struggled with this over the years and I am still trying to understand this beast. I know it is real only because I cannot discount the feelings expressed to me by these loved ones. I think it is so important for those with depression, anxiety, panic attacks to speak out and educate the rest of us because I too could easily fall into the trap of “just get over it” and write you all off as just not having the chops that i or others do. So thank you for this and keep educating us with your fantastic writing!

  8. […] On Christianity and Depression – Five Kids is a Lot of Kids, Beth Woolsey […]

  9. YES! YES! Beth!!!!! This is what I’ve longed to read since the Walsh post. This is the best response, written in with love and mercy. Thank you! These echo the sentiments of my heart, and what I know to be depression and spiritual dryness . I am going to recommend this read to lots and lots of folks. Thank you, and God Bless…by the way, my kids would do the same thing with the chalk. You’re doing great as a momma!!

  10. Beth, I totally agree with you! Thank you for writing this piece explaining depression and how it affects people. You articulate these ideas so well! What you have written is so extremely important! I love your blog! It never fails to brighten my day! Thank you!

  11. My sister was diagnosed with depression in her early twenties. She struggled for some time whether it was okay, as a Christian, to use medication to treat it. She wondered if she should just pray and be more thankful. Finally she went to a church elder for advice, and I have never forgotten what he told her: “Take the medication. If it helps, it’s a physical problem with your body. If it doesn’t help, it’s a spiritual problem.” She took it, and has enjoyed life so much more since then.

    1. I like his point, but I’d also add that mental illnesses are a tricky thing to treat. Most meds work for some people, but not others, and a lot of people with depression have to try several. So, “If it doesn’t help, it’s a spiritual problem” is not necessarily accurate.

  12. One of the nice things about not having a religion is that I don’t have to speak nicely about others. I can just say that I think Matt Walsh is an asshole. Almost everything I’ve ever seen him write reinforces that.

    Regarding depression and anxiety and panic disorder, (I got the trifecta!!) those are not rational conditions. And no amount of praying and wishing will change it.
    I appreciated this post a lot.

  13. Thank you! You are, as you often are, the voice that needs to be heard!

  14. This is so spot on. People don’t think of mental illness as real. Would we ask a diabetic to just snap out of it and will their blood sugars under control? Would we expect someone with renal failure to simply think their kidneys back to life? Then we have to acknowledge that those with mental illness cannot fix themselves by thinking, or praying or hoping.

  15. Thank you.. and thank you

  16. Thank you Beth!

  17. I just stumbled across this and I have to say: Thank you thank you thank you!! This was just so perfectly put.

  18. Well done, Beth. This was very well written. Thank you for your candor. I agree with your thoughts and I think you stated very eloquently the problem with not viewing depression as a medical disorder. Thank you, thank you for writing this. And thank you to your friend, “Samantha” for sharing her thoughts. Her writing was wonderful as well.

  19. Thank you thank you thank you for responding to his post. He is waaaaay off base and has clearly not someone who suffers with depression. It is chemical, not religious.

  20. Thank you for writing this. As a chronic sufferer, I found Walsh’s article to be insulting and was struggling a bit with how to effectively counter it to a couple of friends who bought into his arguments. Your response clarified a few things for me.

  21. Thank you so much for saying what needed to be said about MW’s blogpost! I was horrified to read what he wrote. People who are struggling with debilitating depression need to be wrapped in love, not harangued with judgment regarding the poor choices they might make while trying to find a way to cope with the gaping black hole that is relentlessly pulling them into its vortex.

  22. Beth – Thanks so much for writing this. I’ve been trying to raise awareness of this false conflict between faith and science. Thanks for doing such an eloquent job.

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