The Truth About Robin Williams, and Matt Walsh

Robin Williams has become more than a suicide victim, he has become a spokesman for depression and suicide. Opinions have been thrown across the interwebs and lots of conflict has emerged. This is what happens when evil happens. Suicide is an evil, as is all disease and every manifestation of it. In the wake of this horrible event, an event that occurs with alarming frequency in our world especially among young people, it makes sense that those left to mourn such a loss are confused and filled with chaos that in some way relates back to the chaos Robin Williams felt himself.

Two specific areas of confusion have surfaced that I’d like to comment on. The first is the event itself. The majority of what I’ve read online centers on the experience of Depression and how it led to Robin Williams’ suicide. In reality, Robin Williams probably suffered from Bipolar Disorder, which is very different from Major Depressive Disorder. In discussing the traumatic event of this man’s circumstances, I think it’s important to learn something from what he actually suffered.*

There are two types of Bipolar, labeled Type I and Type II. Type I Bipolar includes experiences of Mania and Depression at different times. Mania is an extremely dangerous state of hyperarousal that affects every part of the person. Think Jim Carrey in The Mask. People who suffer from this disorder typically end up in the hospital and under strict medication management, though they don’t always adhere to their prescriptions. Bipolar II is more difficult to spot, but can be equally dangerous as a result. There was a good portrayal of this disorder by Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. A person suffering from Bipolar II will have experiences of deep depression along with a state called hypomania. Hypomania is less manic than full-blown Mania, but it is still a state of hyperarousal. Hypomania can manifest itself as extremely excited energy, when one is able to feel energized for long periods of time with only a few hours of sleep, or having a high level of irritability or anger (like in Silver Linings Playbook).

It’s been really difficult for people to understand how someone like Robin Williams could have been capable of something so devastating. This is precisely the chaos of Bipolar II. In a hypomanic state, he would have had a magnetic energy – the type of energy that would allow him to feed off of other peoples’ emotion and respond brilliantly and creatively to any situation. The other side of this disorder, though, is the deep depression that makes a person feel devastatingly isolated even if surrounded by love.

There is a distinction to be made between understanding why Robin Williams did what he did, and offering hope to people suffering from Bipolar Disorder, Depression, or suicidal ideation. They are two completely different things.

Blogger Matt Walsh ignored this distinction in the post he wrote about Robin Williams and suicide victims. Normally I enjoy Matt’s blogs – when he writes about what he knows. He can have a sharp, abrasive, and even sometimes arrogant tone, but it can be tolerated when he writes from a place of experience. As a father and husband he has a lot of wisdom to offer his audience. As a public commentator following such a tragedy, he should have had the wisdom to know he doesn’t have the training to speak as he did.

Training would have taught him that you can’t speak at the same time about what has happened, and what could happen for someone still struggling with the same issues. What has happened no longer affects Robin Williams (at least not in this world). It affects those left behind. A discussion of what could happen regarding depression and suicide affects primarily those who are suffering with depression and suicidal thoughts still. These are two completely different groups of people. Matt Walsh’s mistake was trying to write one blog post without realizing that he was speaking to both groups of people.

To those left behind who are themselves suffering a kind of trauma at the loss of a loved one, we can say (from both a morality perspective and a scientific perspective) that a person’s free will can be severely, if not completely, restricted by certain brain states. As people who suffer, you need to understand that your lost loved one was not himself or herself in that state. To judge that they made a “choice” in a psychological or moral sense is to fall into the error of dualism. It is disregarding the very real unity between their biochemical brain state and the state of their psyche and soul. To even use that word in this context is irresponsible, misleading, and harmful.

To those of you who are suffering, living with Bipolar Disorder, Depression, and suicidal thinking, you must know that there is hope! If you are reading this there is still time to make a choice. You can choose to put yourself into the hands of a professional who is trained to take care of you. You can choose to keep fighting, to keep trying, to listen to the tiny voice that cries from the depth of your soul, even if it’s a whisper, hoping for something better than death. You have a choice.

To Matt Walsh, thank you for wanting those suffering from suicidal thoughts to know they have a choice. This was a noble stand to take. The people who have been so cruel to you (as you shared in your blog response) are only contributing to the problems in this world while you are trying to help it. However, please also understand that you are writing to a very broad audience, and those who have already committed suicide have shown that they were in a worse place than the people you could hope to help with your message.

I want to leave off with a thought from one of my favorite Robin Williams movies. Surprisingly I haven’t heard anyone else comment on it yet – I am referring to What Dreams May Come. No, it’s not a theologically accurate film, but it is a beautiful portrayal of hope that there will be someone that loves enough to plummet even the depths of hell to rescue their lost beloved. (Remind anyone else of something about a shepherd and a sheep?) I hope Robin Williams had some of this hope.

On today’s Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, priest and martyr, let us remember that there is no greater love than this, to give up one’s life for one’s friends. Christ gave up his life for his friends; let us hope and pray that as lost as Robin Williams was, he is a friend of Christ and receives his saving grace.

 

*I’m not attempting at an official diagnosis here, only what seems to make sense from the majority of reports that are out and how his public life looked from the outside.

18 Comments
  • RuntoMary
    Posted at 16:31h, 14 August Reply

    I was also surprised about the lack of references to What Dreams May Come on the blogs; it’s one of my favorite movies.

  • Bob
    Posted at 17:51h, 14 August Reply

    Dr. Greg,

    Thanks for that great blog post. I read Matt Walsh’s post the other day and could only come up with two very foggy conclusions:

    1.) I don’t know enough about the topic to assess this guy’s opinion, one way or another and
    2.) I sure as heck know he doesn’t know enough about the topic either!

    It’s nice to hear from someone who actually knows something about the topic.

  • teresa
    Posted at 19:43h, 14 August Reply

    Dr. Greg thank you for your very cogent explanation of the differences of the disorders and a clarification of Matt Walsh’s blog post. I have suffered from clinical depression which I know is not as severe as what you described. But I also appreciated both your comments about Hope and Who that truly is.
    May God bless Robin Williams and bring comfort and hope to his family.

  • christine
    Posted at 21:26h, 14 August Reply

    Thank You for writing this. I didn’t even know that there were 2 different types of Bi Polar. Informative. God Bless Mr. Williams and his loved ones.

  • Wondering
    Posted at 21:45h, 14 August Reply

    Great article. From a perspective of moral theology, do you think it’s ever possible for someone to commit suicide and meet all 3 criteria for a mortal sin (with full intent knowing perfectly well what they were doing)?

  • Cheryl
    Posted at 22:09h, 14 August Reply

    Thank you for this analysis. I read Matt Walsh’s two posts on Robin Williams, and I was very aware of the criticism and vitriol thrown at him in response. I thought his critics were way over the top, but you’ve helped my understand the situation better. What I find most frustrating, however, is that in any discussion of mental health issues, I never see an acknowledgement of the role that diet plays. Are you familiar with any of the studies showing a link between celiac disease/gluten sensitivity and psychological issues? If not, you may find this informative: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3641836/

  • Bryne
    Posted at 08:17h, 15 August Reply

    Dr. Greg, I’d ask you to clarify or expound upon your reasoning about Walsh’s post, because as it is I think it’s insufficient to demonstrate your conclusion.

    In particular, it seems to me that in distinguishing between commenting about those who have taken their lives and those who are still alive, you are making a pastoral distinction but not one with any objective “truth value.” To emphasize depression’s impact on the will to those mourning the loss of a loved one is pastorally sound and will help them to carry on in hope moving forward. To emphasize the freedom of choice to fight against suicide to those in danger of taking their lives makes pastoral sense as it will enable them to recognize what they need to in order to overcome their temptations.

    Yet this has nothing to do with whether or not suicidal persons objectively have a choice, whatever degree their will may be compromised not withstanding. If your call to those with depression to get help, to keep fighting, and to realize they have a choice is universal – that is, it is intended for all persons considering suicide, then it must be true that those who took their lives did indeed have a choice. If, on the other hand, it is misleading to say that those who took their lives had a choice, then the outreach to people struggling with depression *can’t* be universal, since that assertion logically implies that some people so not have a choice.

    I hope you can see the contradiction, here. I also hope you can realize that suicidal people can also see this contradiction. It means little to tell a person they have a choice when they hear in the next breath you say that some other person had no choice.

    I realize that this is a pastorally and therapeutically difficult interplay, because we want to give hope to those suffering a loss. However, if indeed suicidal people *do* have a choice, I think we can acknowledge this to mourners while also helping them to realize how that choice may be compromised. It’s the approach, for example, that the Catechisn of the Catholic Church takes.

    In any case, I am genuinely interested in some clarification along the lines of my questions/comments

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 10:00h, 15 August Reply

      It is pastoral precisely because it does have “truth value,” both for those suffering the loss of someone and those suffering from thoughts of suicide. The point of clarity to make is that one cannot judge the interior disposition of a person from the outside. However, one can make a pretty safe assumption about one’s acts after the act has been performed. The act of suicide (as a symptom of mental disease) communicates a clear indication that the person was interiorly restricted from making a clear act of the will. Is it possible for a person to commit suicide as a clear act of the will? I suppose it has to be possible, but we aren’t just talking about anyone, we are talking about people suffering from the disease of Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. We know that the chemical structure of these diseases significantly impact the brain functioning of a person who is “making a choice.” Executive functioning, moral reasoning, and intellectual understanding are all things that happen in the brain. One commits the error (and heresy) of dualism to believe that these are merely “spiritual” functions of the person without any correlate or unity in the body. The correlate of the body is in the brain, and in the brain these functions are severely limited by disease. Before one commits the act of suicide, we do not know how severely restricted his or her will is. It is therefore pastoral, clinically ethical, and moral to emphasize the choice the person still has. If a person has committed the act, we then know something about how restricted that person’s will was. There is no contradiction here.

      • Bryne
        Posted at 14:06h, 15 August Reply

        Dr. Greg,

        I very much appreciate the response. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this still makes a de facto implication that those who commit suicide have no choice.

        As I understand the reply, you say that any time someone has already undertaken suicide, it is a clear indication that his will was restricted. You continue to suggest that it is unlikely that a person with depression could undertake suicide as a clear act of the will.

        In other words, you seem to be saying that anytime someone with mental illness takes his life, this action is proof or very strong evidence that his will was no longer his own – ie, that he had no choice.

        If not, a much clearer explanation is needed to demonstrate just how we can say both that these people had a choice and that we see suicide as an indication that the will was incapable of action.

        If so, this is a very unhopeful response for anyone who is struggling with severe depression – regardleas of how many times we twll him he has a choice.

  • Wendy
    Posted at 08:49h, 15 August Reply

    I wasn’t as miffed as others were with Matt’s blog. In fact, underneath I understood what he was saying. People say he must be ignorant on mental illness, but it may be the opposite, it may be that he has had too much experience with it by his loved ones. He’s mentioned that it has affected him in his own family, and this has been the same for me with two of my family members, one that resulted in death and the other that is in and out of the hospital. For those that it has impacted personally, there will understandably be mixed emotions to this event – anger being one of them. This is normal and to be expected. And yet out society tends to shun this emotion and shut it down when it reveals itself. Does Matt have a right to be angry? Of course he does, and his humanity will come out in his blog. He raises points that others are afraid to raise.

  • David Lopez
    Posted at 18:13h, 15 August Reply

    I think this article has some merits, especially the parts about bipolar and the mitigating effects of mental illness.

    But it looks like the biggest problem in this whole blogosphere debate is that Matt’s critics are not listening to him, or trying to understand what he really means.

    For example, this article accuses Matt Walsh of dualism:

    “To judge that they made a “choice” in a psychological or moral sense is to fall into the error of dualism. It is disregarding the very real unity between their biochemical brain state and the state of their psyche and soul. To even use that word in this context is irresponsible, misleading, and harmful.”

    (I wonder if Dr. Greg thinks there is some other sense of choice besides the moral or the psychological…)

    But Matt does see a unity of body and soul:

    “No, we are more than our brains and bigger than our bodies. Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual. That isn’t to say that a depressed person is evil or weak, just that his depression is deeper and more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals.” (From his first post)

    And then in the next paragraph Dr. Greg reiterates what Matt Walsh said, saying they do have a choice!

    “To those of you who are suffering, living with Bipolar Disorder, Depression, and suicidal thinking, you must know that there is hope! If you are reading this there is still time to make a choice. You can choose to put yourself into the hands of a professional who is trained to take care of you. You can choose to keep fighting, to keep trying, to listen to the tiny voice that cries from the depth of your soul, even if it’s a whisper, hoping for something better than death. You have a choice.” (Dr. Greg).

    This last paragraph is the main thrust of Matt Walsh’s posts. One of the reasons why he stresses the element of choice in suicide is to give hope to the depressed: their death is not fated by brain chemicals, even though these play a major role.

    It seems like Dr. Greg wants to give everyone his or her free will until they make a wrong choice. Then it’s brain chemicals. But I could be misunderstanding him.

    Most of his Catholic critics stress that the moral culpability of a suicidal person is greatly reduced by mental illness, and this is totally true. The Catechism stresses this too, it’s one of our real reasons for hope. But it is not contradictory to say that there is still choice involved: the propositions, “suicide is a choice” and “the moral culpability of that choice is greatly reduced by mental illness,” are not contradictory.

    I’m not really sure on what points specifically Matt’s critics disagree with him: most seem to agree in their disagreement, and the vast majority of disagreements are based on false understanding of Matt’s arguments. Perhaps it is a “both/and” thing rather than “either/or” when it comes to the roles that choice and mental illness play.

    Anyway, thanks for the article and contribution to the discussion.

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 19:17h, 12 October Reply

      The faculty of choice can be reduced or eliminated by psychological conditions. We have no way of knowing whether or not a person’s faculty of choice is restricted or how much in the moment, however after the fact of suicide it is safe to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that was the case for the victim. For those that haven’t chosen to commit suicide but are struggling with the temptation, it certainly is important to stress the importance of choice and free will. It is a matter of delicate timing, and a proper understanding of the limits of our understanding of another person’s inner life.

  • Jessica
    Posted at 20:49h, 15 August Reply

    Dr. Greg,

    Thank you so much for your insightful post and taking the them to break down bipolar instead of just lumping it all together. My uncle committed suicide when I was 16 and I have suffered with depression and bipolar disorder a good part of my life. I also read Matt Walsh’s post and it made me sick to my stomach. Sick enough that I spent the time today writing my own blog post I would like to share:

    http://www.jessicascarlettbarnes.com/

    At the bottom I wrote:
    “You cannot possibly convey the beauty of a rainbow to a person who was born into this world blind the same way you cannot possibly understand what depression feels like unless you yourself have suffered from it. Those who suffer from depression are those who have the most to offer in this world and that is hope, love, understanding and compassion. Hope we give to other lonely souls that they are not alone in this. Love we offer humanity when we cannot possibly love ourselves. Understanding without judgment for we know firsthand what it feels like to be judged by society. And above all compassion to lift up the broken in spirit.”

    And this is so true. If one does not have the experience in knowing what depression feels like first hand and the devastating hold it can have on a person, which Matt Walsh freely admits he does not, then is it really fair to condemn and criticize a person who commits suicide and the act of suicide and label it? It doesn’t help people suffering and depressed by adding the burden of guilt and confusion for now being labeled selfish is they feel depressed and are considering suicide. It removes from the equation words of hope and encouragement….words that actually can make a difference in saving a life. I feel that if Matt Walsh had taken the time to to go visit people suffering in treatment centers, taken the time to talk with them and really learn just how devastating depression can be and how it can take a hold on a person, how it can consume them, he may have been less abrasive. Not because he needed to filter his thoughts he chose to write and share, but because he is followed by so many and for those of us who suffer from depression his words felt very cold and judgmental instead of words we could use to lift us up and give us hope.

  • Lisa Ann Homic
    Posted at 08:17h, 16 August Reply

    I’d be interested in a commentary about the abortion/euthanasia culture contributing to Mr.Williams’ demise. Secular diagnosis or not, someone with severe suffering needs a Christ centered approach. Did he receive that during any of his times in therapy/rehab? I bet the euthanasia camp is foaming at the mouth over his Parkinson’s diagnosis. The evil continues.

  • Maria Christina
    Posted at 21:45h, 11 October Reply

    Thank you for writing this blog. I have learned from it.

    Losing a loved one to suicide is a devastating experience. Family and friends are left to wonder if the person was saved. God creates every soul in the hope of going to heaven. The people who reject God’s grace are lost because of their own choices.

    The mercy of God is greater than we can imagine. For God all things are Now. Time is God’s creation. God can use prayers to grant the grace of final penitence to a person who died of suicide.

    Prayer in Time of Suicide

    Lord Jesus Christ, I have no place to go but to kneel at the foot of the Cross. The death of someone so dear to me in this awful way leaves me completely confused and disoriented. It is so bitter. I am haunted by the thought that I could have done something, that I might have prevented this terrible disaster. But I don’t know. I must entrust my dear one to You. There is no place else to turn. My dear one, now taken from me by the weakness of the human mind, by the inability to cope with the difficulties of life, by the wounds of mental illness, I place in Your hands. I trust completely in You that I will see those who have died this way again. I trust that, by Your precious blood and divine mercy in the last moments of life, You receive them understanding that they have been defeated by life; and that, in no way, did they mean to go against Your will and Your law. Help us, O Lord, in this darkness to find You and to believe in Your Cross. Amen.

    Groeschel, B. (2009). Tears of God: Persevering in the Face of Great Sorrow or Catastrophe (p. 82). San Francisco: Ignatius.

  • Judy Capistrant
    Posted at 14:25h, 31 January Reply

    Dr. GREG, WHAT is your last name, please? Thank you.

    • Dr. Greg
      Posted at 12:46h, 13 February Reply

      Bottaro

  • Nancy K
    Posted at 15:42h, 23 October Reply

    Awesome blog

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