Wednesday, August 13, 2014

No Laughing Matter

(Picture c/o: The Laugh Factory, via Twitter)
Much has been said about the tragic death of actor, comedian and occasional Bigfoot sighting Robin Williams. Public reaction has been incredibly strong, with people of every generation expressing sorrow, almost as if a beloved family member had died. The circumstances of his passing have ignited yet another National Conversation™, this time about clinical depression and suicide.

The Catholic Church's position on suicide has long been clear: It is wrong, as is all unnecessary taking of life. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
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. [Emphasis added.]
Although suicide is considered an unjust killing, the Church understands that due to the impaired mental state of the person who feels compelled to take his own life, there is a lack of moral culpability traditionally attached to the sinful act. A sin can only be committed if one makes the rational decision to do wrong, but the mind of the person who commits suicide is often in an irrational state. Thus, although the inability of the person who commits suicide to recognise his error may exempt him from a consequence of the act, it does not make the act any less wrong. (To illustrate: A child who has not yet reached the age of reason is wrong to hit his sibling, but he may not yet fully understand why it is wrong and why he should not do it again.)

Unfortunately, not everyone appears to understand the Church's position on the matter, including many Catholics themselves. Case in point: Matt Walsh. Yesterday, he posted a surprisingly myopic article on the subject of suicide and the moral culpability of the "choice" to kill oneself. From his post:
It’s a tragic choice, truly, 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.
We tend to look for the easiest answers. It makes us feel better to say that depression is only a disease and that there is no will and choice in suicide, as if a person who kills themselves [sic] is as much a victim as someone who succumbs to leukemia.
First, suicide does not claim anyone against their [sic] will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.
Putting aside for a moment the astounding lack of charity in Walsh's post, he's just wrong. Utterly wrong.

Look, no-one with a working brain will deny that Williams — along with hundreds of thousands of people every year, over 34,000 of whom in the U.S. alone — "chose" to commit suicide. Yes, it is a voluntary act. Yes, people should be held to account for their actions. And yes, it is troubling that we, as a society, have made a habit of excusing unacceptable behaviour and permitting people to get away with murder (horrible pun honestly not intended), which is why I refuse to say that one "died by suicide", rather than one "committed suicide". It is an action one does, not a passive occurrence which happens to someone, a point Walsh actually does make, but it is still an act done when one is out of his right mind, which is why I must address Walsh's argument.

Full disclosure: Walsh himself has depression, and I do not. He is, by any fair assessment, more qualified to discuss depression and its deleterious effects than I am, from a medical standpoint. I am speaking purely from a moral standpoint, and here, Walsh falters.

Based on simple cause-and-effect, depression can kill. Depression need not make one drop dead by itself, like a heart attack or an aneurysm, but it can so alter a person's mind, his conscience, his moral values, that it can be the main factor in a person ending his own life. A person with a mental illness cannot reason in the same way as someone who is not ill. In that person's head, the irrational is rational. It is a totally different world, one which transcends mere sadness and plunges a human being into a state of such despair that he might choose to kill himself, in effect, killing the whole world, the ultimate act of theft: the theft of one's own life, along with the gifts God grants us during our brief sojourn in his temporal Creation. Yes, Matt, depression kills.

And to reiterate: Williams' action was wrong and hurt many people, including his three children. To add insult to injury, his daughter, Zelda, has stopped using social media as a result of vicious trolls taunting her in the wake of her dad's death. But Williams' suicide was neither malicious nor selfish, insofar as it was the final act — and the final mistake — of a sad, broken man, who felt that there was no hope left in this world and thus chose to leave it. The circumstances of Williams' death ought not reflect on his character. He was flawed, like the rest of us, but sadly, his flaws got the better of him.

If you have not noticed it already, you will see that one of our blog's patrons is Saint Genesius of Rome. His patronage includes both actors and comedians (and, by proxy, bad puns, obviously). Genesius lived during the Roman persecution of Christianity and died for his faith when he refused to continue to act in plays which mocked the Faith and implored the Emperor to embrace Christ. (He also might not have actually existed, but technicalities are for jerks.) The Fraternity of Saint Genesius is dedicated to praying for actors and their colleagues, and this healing prayer is most appropriate for those suffering from depression and other mental illness:

Prayer for Healing through the Intercession of Saint Genesius

Lord Jesus,
you took pity on the blind Bartimaeus
and healed him;
you raised Lazarus from the dead
and freed Mary Magdalen from seven
devils to count her among your disciples.
You made the blind see, the deaf hear,
the dumb speak, the lame walk,
you cleansed lepers and cast out demons.
You preached the Good News to the poor 
and bless those who are faithful to you.
Through the intercession of your 
faithful martyr, Genesius, 
grant your healing and consolation to the sick. 
Give them the strength to carry their Cross 
in union with you.
We remember in particular Robin and all of those suffering from mental illness.
Help us to remain faithful to you in health 
and in suffering, conformed to your Cross; 
open our hearts to your will 
so your grace may transform our lives.

Saint Genesius, ora pro nobis.


  1. I'm actually really happy you posted this, and to be perfectly honest it's one of the few things I have read about Robin Williams as of late that has comforted me rather than send me on a spiral of tears and wine.

    I'm taking his death pretty hard, for a variety of reasons. His movies made up majority of my childhood, my mother learned English watching his movies, and whenever I was sad, or had a particularly bad day, I would always pop in "Jumanji" or "Dead Poets Society" or of course "Mrs. Doubtfire" and right away my day got better.

    I'm baffled how such a beloved actor, such an all around great guy could take his own life. I have never met the man, but as my friend described it, it felt like my favorite uncle died. This is the first thing I read that although left me in tears, I actually feel a lot better than I did before I read the article.

    I'm off to pray and read more about Saint Genesius now.

  2. I have nothing invested in this whole social media frenzy (no attachment to the man or his work) but cheers to you Damian for handling the topic with your usual tact.

  3. "Based on simple cause-and-effect, depression can kill. Depression need not make one drop dead by itself, like a heart attack or an aneurysm, but it can so alter a person's mind, his conscience, his moral values, that it can be the main factor in a person ending his own life. A person with a mental illness cannot reason in the same way as someone who is not ill. In that person's head, the irrational is rational."

    In my view, all those who contribute to what causes the depression are in fact responsible for murder. One of the reasons that suicide continues to remain a problem is ignorance. Matt Walsh certainly is no help.