The Corner

‘Depression Isn’t a Character Defect, It’s an Illness’

I was just reading through some of what has been written about Robin Williams. Among them, pieces that try to describe his faith life. That’s quite the impossible thing to do – we know facts like a baptism; we know jokes, like: “I don’t understand the whole fundamentalist thing; you see, I’m an Episcopal; that’s Catholic Light. Same religion, half the guilt!”; we know what he shared in interviews . . .

And in one interview, Williams said, ominously now: “In America, they really do mythologize people when they die.”

The very worst thing American culture could do is turn Robin Williams into a myth. He was a man. A madly talented man who obviously hurt deeply.

Last night, when I first flipped on CNN, a little around 8 p.m, a host commented that his death by apparent suicide was “unbelievable.” Unbelievable? At a time when we are losing men at unacceptable rates? Helen Smith and I talked about this some months ago — the abhorrently high rates of men killing themselves.

That wildly talented man, whoever he is, is a man. Remember that when tempted to envy. Remember that if you are a person who prays. More thoughts here.

The title above refers to an interview I did with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty about depression. He wrote a book on it, and I recommend it — especially if you don’t understand how Williams could do such a thing or if you suffer from depression yourself or love someone who does. As a matter of solidarity — and common decency — this is a plight we ought to be more aware of, and sensitive to.

My friend David Franks calls it “the modern affliction,” to which Kheriaty adds:

Social fragmentation and social isolation play a significant role, as does work-related stress and the pace of life today. Many people in the West today are plagued by a grey fog of nihilism and a consequent loss of meaning and purpose in their lives. So the burden of depression in the modern age is tremendous: The World Health Organization ranks depression fourth among the ten leading causes of disease burden globally; it is expected to rise to second on that list in the next 20 years.

Believe it. And do something about it.

Not too far from Hollywood, there’s been a great ecumenical attention to depression in Orange County — under the leadership of Rick Warren, who lost his son to depression and eventual suicide, Bishop Kevin Vann and Catholics there who are transforming the former Crystal Cathedral campus, now Christ Cathedral, and the Hope Line that has been run from there for decades.

In an interview, Robin Williams also told Charlie Rose:

And yet, yesterday the pain became too much for him.

Let’s make sure people don’t let hope be stolen from them – whoever they are. There are too many people amongst us who feel not only depressed but alone and ashamed because of it. Through friendship, presence, testimony, knowledge of resources, and prayer, we can help. (Some additional thoughts here.)

Robin Williams was a man, no myth. And may his death serve to urge others to get the help they need. 

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