My thoughts here are a bit passionately swirled, so please bear with me.
When people talk when they don’t know what they’re talking about—and not just talk, but judge—I have a problem with that. A big problem. I’ve been feeling it pretty strongly this week with the death of Robin Williams.
I, along with so many others, was devastated to learn of Williams’ suicide. The one glimmer of hope I felt in his passing was that maybe it would shed better light on mental illness. After all, if a man seemingly so full of joy could take his own life…depression must be real, right? And, thankfully, I have heard some good conversations started because of it. But it’s also brought to light some stunningly insensitive opinions on the topic, as well—most notably (at least for me) the comments made by rocker Gene Simmons. Simmons has since tried to renege on his comments, but I find even those words exasperating.
That kind of stuff feels like a kick in the gut to me.
Back when I taught high school, I went to a student’s funeral who committed suicide. The semester had just started, so I didn’t really get to know her, but I really wish I had had the chance to…What I did see was that she was quiet, sweet, and thoughtful. And she totally mattered. The world lost out when she decided to leave it.
According to Mr. Simmons, though, she had some “dignity” when she killed herself. Granted, his comments are on the far end of the spectrum. While his words are easy for most of us to dismiss as outrageous, there are other responses that, while not so blatantly offensive, still show a lack of understanding when it comes to mental illness.
As I shared in Beautifully Broken, I cope with depression and anxiety. It runs in my family, and it has definitely left its mark. Though my struggles have not brought me to the brink, I understand how the thief that is depression can steal your hope and bring you to dark places that on a good day you could never imagine.
I don’t pretend to know much about depression, but at least I know I don’t know. And I do know that whatever other people are going through, my best response is to listen and care.
I know that mental illness is an illness…and not just people being electively “crazy.” I know that there are people who would never say “get over it” to someone who has cancer or heart disease, but don’t hold mental illness in the same category. Yet it is.
I’ve heard from the pulpit how if we just “turn toward God” we wouldn’t need prescription drugs. I’ve seen people forego seeking help because they have been told to pray harder. Read more scripture. And while I truly believe that all of those things are important, I know that that kind of attitude from members of the clergy does an injustice—and actual damage—to people who are suffering.
There is no shame in illnesses like Multiple Sclerosis or asthma—or any other type of illness—and there shouldn’t be in mental illness, either. Jesus healed all types of sickness with his loving touch. I missed the part in scripture where he dismisses anyone’s hurts or tells them to snap out of it.
Is it possible that some doctors wrongfully prescribe antidepressants to people? Why, yes—in fact I believe that myself because I know people who have had a two-minute chat with a doctor who was then ready to write a prescription. Is there more research to be done on the effectiveness of these kinds of medications? Absolutely. But that doesn’t negate the reality that for many people, these drugs are both a life-saver and giver.
Meds work for some people and not for others. Psychotherapy works for some and not for others. Some people need both. For some, other treatments like electroshock therapy bring relief. Mental illness is not a one-trick pony.
And our response to it should not be to judge or to fix. Please don’t assume you know people’s brokenness—how they got broken, how they need to “fix” it, or what they are doing “wrong.”
As with all the rest of life, if we just tried to understand and care for one another…to have empathy for another’s experience…we could move mountains.
So let’s push to remove the stigma of mental illness. Let’s make it so that people who need help aren’t afraid of being seen as “less than” and instead feel safe to seek help as soon as they realize they need it. Let’s not judge the battles of those whose shoes we have not walked in. Let’s understand that this type of illness can hit anyone at any time, and the sooner we make these kinds of changes, the better for the whole world.
Let’s move mountains.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please seek help immediately. Don’t question whether or not you should seek help—just do it. The American Suicide Prevention Hotline can be found here, and here is a list of international suicide crisis hotlines.