The suicide of Robin Williams comes on the heels of my return to urban ministry… a context that heightens awareness of and exposure to those with mental illness. Or, at least those with uncontrolled and improperly-medicated mental illness.
I remember being in a meeting in a suburban church I served and having someone mention the estimate on the percentage of the population that experiences mental illness. It’s roughly 25%. Someone in the group was incredulous and remarked aloud that that number seemed excessive. I remember wondering how many of us sitting in the room at that very moment were medicated but unwilling to speak up.
In the Christian sub-culture I’m afraid we still have a long way to go in our understanding of and response to mental illness. In the Christian culture of my upbringing I recall many a conversation among friends, fellow-church members and relatives regarding suicide. The often given response was that it was an unpardonable sin, thereby implying that anyone who took their own life would be condemned to eternal damnation. (Never mind that Jesus himself states in Mark’s gospel that there is only one unpardonable sin: blaspheming the Holy Spirit.) My mom, who’d experienced severe depression following the sudden death of her father-in-law, brother-in-law and a miscarriage, was often in the room when those conversations took place. She never spoke up either… who could have blamed her. Such conversations often referenced sorrowful Old Testament characters like King Saul who, according to the Deuteronomist, was troubled by “an evil spirit from God.” For ancient persons, God (or the gods) were directly responsible for all such behaviors and attitudes. Their understanding of brain chemistry had a ways to go.
Today, thanks to modern science and medicine, we know better. But I’m not so sure we are communicating any better. I’m afraid many Christians are still made to feel that depression is incompatible with Christian faith, as if the lack of “the joy of the Lord” indicates a lack of God’s presence.
Williams’ death has caused the media to rise up with compassion and information. But media attention is swift and short-lived. It can be, and should be, the job of the Church to make sure such understanding, compassion and mercy is not a “flash in a celebrity pan” but the enduring good news of the grace of Christ.