Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Responses to suicide

There's nothing like the tragic death of a celebrity to bring out the worst in humanity.

I'm talking about the suicide of Robin Williams, of course, and in my first statement I'm guilty of Overgeneralizing Because I'm Pissed Off.  There have been a great many beautiful tributes, both by public figures and by Williams' fans, mourning the loss of a brilliant comic and sympathizing with the heartbreak his family is experiencing.  I have seen many use this as an opportunity to make a statement about the devastating nature of depression, and encouraging those contemplating suicide to consider other options.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

But man, does this kind of thing bring out the jerks.

Starting with our friends over at the Westboro Baptist Church, which I thought had more or less fallen apart after the death of Fred Phelps.  But no, they're still going strong, and sending out their edifying messages to all and sundry.  And yesterday they announced that they're planning on picketing Robin Williams' funeral because he was a "fag pimp" for creating positive portrayals of gay men in movies.

We'd expect that kind of thing from them, though.  These people are light years from anything resembling human compassion, so such a move is hardly surprising.  Equally unsurprising is the reaction of conspiracy theorists such as noted wingnut Mark Dice, who claims that Williams didn't commit suicide, but was "sacrificed by the Illuminati."

But none of that really bothers me, other than on a purely superficial level.  Wackos will be wackos, after all.  I'm bothered far more deeply by people who are coldly, callously using Williams' death to make a political or philosophical point.  Let's start with Kevin Burke, over at the anti-abortion site Life News, who is claiming that Williams' depression was caused by the fact that his girlfriend had had an abortion back in the 1970's:
Many are aware that Williams struggled for years with serious addiction issues.  However a lesser known fact is that one of those demons was an abortion that took place in the 1970’s...  Is there a relationship between Robin William’s descent into drug addiction and depression that began in the 1970’s and his past abortion?  Williams said in an interview in The Guardian in 2008, “You know, I was shameful…You do stuff that causes disgust, and that’s hard to recover from.  You can say, ‘I forgive you’ and all that stuff, but it’s not the same as recovering from it."  Williams may have been making a thinly veiled reference to what society tells us does not exist…his post abortion trauma and complicated grief.
Then there was P. Z. Myers, whose blog Pharyngula I actually used to like, who decided to use Williams' suicide to make a point about how biased media coverage is:
I’m sorry to report that comedian Robin Williams has committed suicide, an event of great import and grief to his family.  But his sacrifice has been a great boon to the the news cycle and the electoral machinery — thank God that we have a tragedy involving a wealthy white man to drag us away from the depressing news about brown people.  I mean, really: young 18 year old black man gunned down for walking in the street vs. 63 year old white comedian killing himself?  Which of those two stories gives you an excuse to play heart-warming and funny video clips non-stop on your 24 hour news channel?...  Boy, I hate to say it, but it sure was nice of Robin Williams to create such a spectacular distraction.
He's right, of course, about media bias.  But putting it this way, P. Z., doesn't make you acerbic or cutting-edge or clever, it just makes you an insensitive asshole.

But no one pissed me off worse than prominent Christian blogger Matt Walsh.  Not, of course, the first time this has happened.  And actually, he started off well enough:
The death of Robin Williams is significant not because he was famous, but because he was human, and not just because he left this world, but particularly because he apparently chose to leave it. 
A terrible, monstrous atrocity.  It disturbs me in a deep, visceral, indescribable way. Of course it disturbs most people, I would assume.  Indeed, we should fear the day when we wake up and decide we aren’t disturbed by it anymore.
But take a look at how he ended the piece:
(W)e can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression.  No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time.  The two cannot coexist.  Joy is light, depression is darkness.  When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it.  I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it.
Seriously?  That's your suggestion to the depressed, that they should just "feel joyful?"  His statement "joy is the only thing that defeats depression" is like saying that "the only thing that defeats cancer is not having cancer."  He says, earlier in his blog, "(B)efore I’m accused of being someone who 'doesn’t understand,' let me assure you that I have struggled with this my entire life."

I don't know about you, but it sure as hell sounds to me like he doesn't understand.  His shallow and thoughtless piece minimizes the anguish suffered by tens of thousands, and once again falls back on the old, horrible trope that people who are depressed "just aren't trying hard enough."

Let me be perfectly open here.  I have suffered from moderate to severe depression my entire adult life.  I have only once been in the depths to the point that I actually had the pile of sleeping pills in my hand, a glass of water on my nightstand.  I didn't follow through with it for one reason only; I was scared.

I'm glad I didn't, of course.  Because you can get through depression, you can deal with it, even though it never really is completely defeated.  Through many long years of therapy and the support of my family and friends, I'm doing okay.  But depression is a murderous bitch, no respecter of fame, fortune, or stature, that robs life of its spark and saps your energy and makes everything look gray.  I wish Robin Williams had found his way out of that dark place; his choice to end his life is especially wrenching considering the joy he gave to millions.

But I do understand it.  I've been there.  And I have nothing but empathy for what he went through, and my heart breaks for what his family is enduring.

So to the people like Matt Walsh, whose ridiculous assessments downplay the real struggles the mentally ill experience; to P. Z. Myers and Kevin Burke, who heartlessly sank their claws into Williams' suicide as a way of scoring a philosophical point; and even to wackos like Mark Dice and the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who are using the whole thing to bolster their bizarre worldviews... to them I only have one thing to say.

Shut the fuck up.


  1. Having read Walsh's whole post (with which there are definitely problems), I'm getting a very different message from the quote you selected than you are. For me, this is the key phrase, one which rings absolutely true: 'When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it.'. I don't think Walsh was proposing a one-step therapy plan of 'feel more joyful' at all. I think he was (correctly, whatever his other faults) identifying the problem.

    It does sound a bit like he's dismissing pharmacology and psychology (more so in the whole post, too), but again, I'm not sure there isn't here a good point being poorly made. The aim of all the treatments I've heard of for depression, or at least all the ones that sounded at all scientific or research-grounded, is the restoration of the various mechanisms of positive feeling (whether we call it joy, or happiness, or just plain old good health). There are drugs to treat blocked hormone systems, there are cognitive therapies to break down the conviction (which plays a large part in my personal experience of depression) that nothing will ever feel good again, but their end result is the reenabling of the physiological and psychological machinery of joy which depression has broken.

  2. You didn't include Shepard Smith at Fox News getting a lot of flak for calling Williams a coward. He has since apologised, but there have been calls for him to be sacked.