Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, Morality, and Mental Illness

Popular Christian morality has a strained relationship with mental illness, and this has scarcely been more apparent than right now. With Robin Williams’ tragic suicide yesterday, everyone seems to have an opinion to share — not a bad thing, as I had my own, but some of the opinions have been rather offensive. As a general rule, the worst time to preach about the morality of suicide is immediately after the fact. Even if you say something true, which seems to be pretty hard for a lot of people, the more moral proclamations you make, the more likely it is that your comments on the situation are ill-timed at best, horrible at worst.

And so it is with Matt Walsh’s insultingly-titled article, Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice. The article itself is not as bad as the title, but it is still bad. Even if the article were good, the title is an offense of its own. Matt Walsh should apologize for the post (and honestly all his other posts, too) for speaking well beyond his expertise. To put Walsh’s advice in a nutshell, he basically states that people battling depression are faced with a difficult choice, and they ultimately need to be sufficiently spiritually-aligned to keep from making that fateful decision to end one’s life.

It’s not for me to comment on the exact nature of depression, and the same is true for Walsh. Read a trained therapist or maybe just study psychology if you want to know more. We have experts for a reason, and you should realize the limits of your knowledge and defer to people who know more than you.

Here’s the thing, though. We don’t expect people with Downs syndrome to perform rocket science. We don’t expect people with cerebral palsy to compete at the Olympic level. We never fault them for this, and we do our best to love them and support them in their limitations.

Why, then, do we treat people with depression and similar illnesses as though they should be able to perform at a level well above the limitations of their disease? Why do some people — like Matt Walsh — try to fault people for not making all the right choices, even when those people have problems which preclude making all the right choices?

Christian folk morality really needs for Williams’ suicide to be a choice. If it’s not a choice, how can we say that suicide is bad? How can we assign it moral value? And whose fault is the suicide if not the person who killed himself? This last question is critical, I believe.

It is trivially true that Robin Williams and no one else ultimately placed the noose around his own neck, but this is not enough to start assigning blame. This is precisely the mistake that Walsh and others make. They ask the question, “Whose fault is the suicide?” and then take the immediately-obvious answer without a deeper consideration of what could be the case. The action is too complex and premeditated, so folk morality has a very hard time placing blame elsewhere or perhaps placing no blame at all; the simplest explanation then prevails in spite of the facts which complicate the matter.

Folk morality has a long list of similar simplifications. Poor people should just make better decisions — even though the education necessary to make better decisions is expensive and out of reach. Black people should stop committing so many crimes and tearing apart their community — even though the criminal justice system unfairly targets the problems facing minority communities, even though the felonies received for minor crimes all but preclude finding a decent job. Women in a crisis pregnancy only do harm receiving an abortion — even though single mothers face horrible poverty and food security statistics.

Curiously, I began crafting the previous paragraph before I realized that in every case, Matt Walsh had already said the sorts of things I criticize here: over-simplifications of complex problems. So, I just made some minor edits and linked his articles. He writes as though his solutions are obvious to everyone, so people should just bow to his wisdom. Here’s a hint: the world is a complex place. Our first intuitions are frequently wrong. We have to do the hard work of researching a topic thoroughly before speaking about it — a concept which Walsh frankly fails to grasp.

One of the things that we will have to give up if we do this, though, is our naive outlook on free will which we inherit from folk morality and which informs Walsh’s latest gaffe. If only people would just choose to do the right things, right? If our choices were not colored by chemicals, by past experiences, by knowledge and experience, by disease, by bacteria in your stomach, and by a whole bunch of other factors, then sure. But the reality is that free will is such a complex subject that honestly not even the brightest philosophers, psychologists, or neuroscientists comprehend it. I certainly don’t, and I’ve studied it a good deal — far more, I assume, than Walsh, whose credentials and background seem totally elusive.

We really must divest ourselves of the tendency toward easy answers. Walsh is easy to pick on because he is so frequently wrong, but he is certainly not the only person who does this. Mental illness is a complex topic, and the answer to suicide isn’t just “don’t do it! Be more spiritual!” No matter how loudly we scream, that approach simply fails to address the situation. If we are serious about combating suicide, let’s address the systemic problems with our society that engender feelings of loneliness and abandonment, let’s end the stigma against getting help, and let’s learn a bit more about mental illnesses. Again, go read a psychology textbook or at least a good number of Wikipedia pages before presuming to make a judgment.

In tragic cases like Robin Williams’ death, it is easy to fall for simple explanations to make sense of the world, but we have to be better than that. We need to acknowledge the complexity of reality and recognize the limitations of our knowledge. If we fail, we make asses of ourselves, but I think we can succeed, and if we succeed, we make the world a better place. Let’s strive to be compassionate, informed citizens proudly working together to support the downtrodden and depressed. Let’s hope for a world where the next Robin Williams doesn’t have to die.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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12 Responses to Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, Morality, and Mental Illness

  1. April K says:

    If Matt’s credentials seem elusive, it’s because he has none. He’s a high-school graduate from Kentucky and very proud of the fact that he’s never cracked the cover on a college textbook. He tells young people (and their parents) that they don’t need to go to college – that, in fact, the public education system is simply a giant indoctrination machine for the “liberal agenda” and their anti-God ideas. He thinks he is the world’s example to follow because he, an uneducated white guy, worked his way up from nothing to someone who gets paid to spout his over-simplified, ill-informed opinions to like-minded audiences. Anybody can do that if they just work hard enough…right??

    Sorry, not feeling terribly gracious today. This is not the first time he’s gotten under my skin.

    • That would be why he hides his credentials… The thing is, he’s smart but uneducated. His website design is great, and he has a clear handle on rhetoric. He just sucks at knowing how the world works.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Really appreciate your response and especially the bit on Christian folk morality. Did you coin that or is there a larger body of work referring to that as a subject, because I think that’s an idea that is so important for us seeking to undo, in Christian ministry, the damage it has done.

    • I wouldn’t say there is a large body of work on the subject, but it’s a pretty common way I’ve seen people refer to the difference between lay ideas and those espoused by experts doing research.

  3. Chris Thomas says:

    I had just read Matt’s article and this response(sorry for posting a link on your site!), and I was just thinking to myself, “I wonder what Chris Attaway will post on this?”

    I think you nailed it and Matt.

    People hate or simply just cannot handle complexity and paradox.

    • Wow, it’s quite humbling to hear that someone is actively seeking my opinion! Thanks; I appreciate it. Don’t forget to share =) Walsh and others like him have a comparatively gigantic audience compared to small-time bloggers like me.

  4. Annie says:

    Hi Chris! Just read your response after reading both of Matt’s blog posts. I’m not a hard-line conservative or liberal. I’m not as good a Christian as I should be. I’m a whole lot of things, and some of them aren’t very flattering. I also think that Matt Walsh is pretty…extreme in many of his views. (In fact, I’ve gone back and read a few of your posts and think you express my own attitude toward life much better than Walsh.) I just wanted to note two things here: 1) I enjoyed your response to his posts as a different facet of the discussion, and 2) I don’t think Matt’s posts, either of them, are far off. He’s not claiming expertise as a psychologist or psychiatrist. He clearly states that his opinions and experiences are just that–his opinions and experiences. He laid his heart bare regarding his own struggles with depression and experience with suicide. I have struggled for many years with bipolar disorder II, severe, and firmly feel that suicide is a lot of things, including a choice. The only time I take issue with Matt’s posts is that they don’t seem to account for the fact that most suicides seem to occur on the upswing of a depressive episode, which is when a person is realizing that they do have some control over their own fate and choose to exercise it. I have made two attempts myself, with a third foiled by my amazing husband. All three occurred in a moment of clarity after several days of “things getting better”, and were not unconsidered decisions. But they were still decisions. Choices. I believe I’m fortunate in my failure because I am now watching my children, not yet conceived when these things occurred, grow in their wonder of the world.

    As for Christian folk moralizing: bravo. You hit the nail on the head. Right now is a very challenging time for my family, and I have to remind myself nearly every moment of every day that there are no easy answers and that there are no easy accomplishments. This “folk moralizing” allows less introspective people and Christians to avoid looking deeper into the issue and addressing what they can do to create a solution rather than continue to harangue at the problem. A personal goal of mine right now is to present people around me with solutions instead of criticisms (a huge character flaw of mine). Sometimes the solution is just to answer the phone at 2 am, regardless of whether it will wake the baby, to ensure that the friend who’s calling gets the talk-down she needs to avoid picking up a bottle of liquor.

    I believe that if I do more every day to be an example of Christ by assisting those around me, my world will be a better place. I believe this is the same for all people…but I don’t have control over those. I will start with myself and see if I can influence others to do the same.

    Thank you for being a calm voice in a storm.

  5. Pingback: The Life of the World and the Death of a Comedian | Lucas's Weblog

      • Thoughts:

        (a) He is too sure that clinging to joy and hope will overcome the disease of depression. He assigns too much weight to the spiritual aspects of the disease – if there are any at all. Is ebola a spiritual disease? Why does a disease become spiritual strictly because it affects the mind?

        (b) It was indeed “too soon.” As I mentioned in my post, the time to discuss the morality of suicide is not immediately after a suicide (and I chastised a few other bloggers for this in comments).

        (c) While the rage he received outweighed the content of the *post*, the title was an offense of its own, which I noted as well.

        I have no doubt that Walsh gave his opinions earnestly. The problem is that his opinions are bad.

  6. Breann Ison says:

    I am not a religious person. I have always put my faith in Humanity and, like Walsh (who makes this claim, but clearly does not grasp the reality of what it is), I have believed in the good of people. This faith has been at the core of all disappointment in my life having experience personally or through stories in such massive volumes of rude, bias, judgmental, unkind, apathetic, socio-pathic, self-obsessed, self-righteous, hateful, and hurtful people. My faith, however, is restored when I learn of people like you, Chris Attaway. I wish nothing more than for more and more people to stand up for others. I had hopes of more celebrities, politicians, and social figures, who have the benefit of being heard by millions, standing up and speaking out about emotional and mental illness. Unfortunately, two years later, Robin Williams tragic suffering seems to have been pushed out of the minds of the billions of fans who loved him. It’s a heart-breaking thing to witness the way society has failed to pay tribute to a man who’s life-long pursuit was to spread joy and happiness to anyone and everyone in need across the globe.

    As for Matt Walsh, seeing as though he believes it is the right and moral choice to publicly belittle and shame fellow human beings for choosing to end the excruciating pain they’re “afflicted” with, which he knows nothing of, proves that he does not understand what is right and wrong, and worse yet, he uses his unconditional-love-and-acceptance-based religion to support his uneducated unkind opinion! Christianity is known to be based on the beliefs of Jesus and the reasons in which he was here. He was said to have “died for our sins”, for the imperfections of man and of free-will so that man could live knowing the love of God and not in fear of prosecution. Why Walsh and people like him will never see the most astronomical flaw in using Christianity to defend their prosecution of others’ sins is beyond my comprehension. Did Jesus inflict judgment upon Mary Magdalene for her promiscuous choices? Did he die for your sins, Matt Walsh, but not for others? If he were asked who He believes deserves forgiveness more, you or Robin Williams, do you believe he would choose you? Do you find comfort in in the love of Jesus, a man who loved all mankind so much that his sole purpose of life was to bear that pain for us? Do you believe that he would not have wished to bear the pain that Robin Williams felt every day for him? Do you not think that Jesus would feel sorrow knowing that his life teachings are being used to spread prejudice and hurtful judgment to fellow people through your Blogs and Radio Mr. Walsh? I am not a Christian nor do I have extensive knowledge on the teachings of the Bible. But I am familiar with the Decalogue and God’s Law that if you are to break any one commandment you are in violation of them all; and when asked the most important of the 10 Jesus says this of the first and second- “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. I understand Mr. Walsh that in contrast to the persona you put forth publicly that you may not truly be confident and my not love yourself, if that is the case then may I point out that I believe the point Jesus is trying to make is not to literally love your fellow man ONLY as much as you love yourself, but to accept all man as an equal because love breeds love, acceptance breeds acceptance, support breeds support, they all spread happiness and well being, and most importantly and also the entire motivation behind my response here is to realize and remember that just as powerfully as love, acceptance, and support, is hate. Hatred and apathy will breed the same causing nothing good for mankind.

    -Breann Ison

    P.S. Robin Williams, thank you for the healing power of your comedy and valuable lesson of your pain. I am sorry that we failed you as a society. I hope your death is not in vain and will be used to eradicate the pain of living with depression.

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