Talking about Robin Williams and Suicide

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Robin William's suicide has been talked about around the world. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sent out a well-intentioned and foolish tweet with a picture from the Disney movie of the genie (voiced by Williams) giving Aladdin a hug. The tweet says, "Genie, you're free." In a report on National Public Radio, Elizabeth Minne, a licensed psychologist in Austin, Texas, says that comments like this make her job difficult, because they paint suicide as a positive or appropriate way to find some sense of relief. Others talk about Williams losing his battle with depression, implying that anyone who commits suicide is weak. 

But what are helpful ways to talk about suicide? Perhaps the most helpful of all is a 3000-year-old lament written by someone in the throws of a deep depression. Though not explicitly about suicide, the author of Psalm 88 feels far from God and close to death. This psalm both challenges anyone who says that "People of God should never be depressed" and gives voice to the heart struggling with depression, and turns that struggle into a prayer.

In addition, here are three responses to Williams' death that I have found helpful. 

In "What the Church & Christians Need to Know About Suicide & Mental Health," Ann Voskamp says nothing about Williams, but talks about grace, lament, her mother's mental illness, and Voskamp's own consideration of suicide. 

"Talking about suicide and Robin Williams’s death," by Hollis Easter, gives seven helpful and loving items to consider. 

Anne Lamott posted a visceral lament on Facebook the day after Williams died. The comments from others are as helpful as Lamott's own words. 

In the wake of this very public suicide, I pray that we may gain a deeper awareness about depression and suicide, and in turn that the people of God may become even more compassionate and helpful toward people who think that taking their own lives as the only way to find relief from the abyss in which they find themselves. 

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Amen.

Thanks so much for this blog entry Mark. I especially appreciate the link to Anne Lamott's FB posting - powerful words.

Community Builder

I saw a picture of Robin Williams on a people's magazine today in the grocery store where I often shop and the sadness in his eyes was obvious. He really made me think about the saying that the clowns that make us laugh are crying when nobody's looking.  "Un clown triste," is how we sum it up in French.  It isn't weak to feel depressed, anymore than it's weak to have diabetes or arthritis.  If it were, then we'd all be weak, and truth be told, we all are because nobody's immune to illness in this world, and there is nowhere in the Bible where you can find the words, : "The brain of Christians is immune to disease."  So then why do some people who claim to be Christians condemn those who suffer from brain diseases?  Count yourself fortunate if that is not your particular cross, but don't add to the burden of those for whom it is. 

I am a suicide survivor. I thought about it. I even walked to the edge of a river with the intent of throwing myself in it to end the pain.  Mental illness was pretty much a taboo back then. Even worse than now.  The reason I'm still alive is that God convinced me not to give up on life just yet, so I didn't and walked back home. And never went back to that particular spot, though I have walked again along a river's bank but not with suicide in mind.  I have found relief, and I know I'm fortunate in this, so I've made it my life's goal to help other people who suffer from mental illnesses. One way I'm planning to do this is to set up a Friends for Mental Health support group in the church I attend, and the pastor is supporting me in this.  Maybe it's something you could do too if the cause is close to your heart.

Guide

Michele, I appreciate your point that no one is immune to challenges and struggles. The difference between each of us is that the struggles we have are different. I hope that others will respond similarly by starting support groups in their own churches.

Thanks too for sharing a bit of your own journey. Your comment reminds me that readers may be interested in hearing from others who also have been affected by mental illness. Disability Concerns created Stories of Grace and Truth (www.crcna.org/graceandtruth) so that people could share prose, poetry, and visual art that arises out of their own journeys with mental illness. 

Guide

Two resources specifically for pastors:
Christian Reformed Disability Concerns has been a member of Pathways to Promise* since its beginning. One of the pillars of this organization, Rev. Bob Dell wrote a response to Williams suicide specifically as a resource for pastors with some ideas for responding in a way that is helpful for congregations. Dell reminds pastors that the very public nature of Williams' suicide will touch many people in painful ways including people dealing with depression and people who have lost a loved one to suicide. 

Also, the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness produced a series of short videos, posted on the Caring Clergy Project website, that were written "specifically for clergy and staff of faith communities. Learn how to recognize risk factors and warning signs of suicide, how to tell if a person is considering suicide and how to respond if you discover they are. You'll also learn how to respond to families after a suicide and how to plan a memorial service for someone who has died by suicide.”

*Pathways to Promise is an interfaith cooperative of many faith groups. We provide assistance and are a resource center which offers liturgical and education materials, program models, caring ministry with people experiencing a mental illness and their families. The resources are used by people at all levels of faith group structures from local congregations to regional and national staff.

Thank you for shedding light on a dark but pressing issue for God's people.  Wherever the light shines, the darkness will not overcome - God bless your ministry in His light.

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