This phrase has deeply irritated and offended me for a long time and, with the beloved Robin Williams’ apparent suicide yesterday, it’s unfortunately made an appearance in every comments’ section of every article I’ve read about him (yes, I know it’s a bad idea to read the comments sections unless you’re looking to lose your faith in humanity). Apparently, he even said it while in character for the 2009 film World’s Best Dad. This post isn’t exactly a tribute to so many people’s favorite actor (there are several good ones already out there and there and many more to come I’m sure). It’s more that I’ve decided that I should actually say something about the destructive and hurtful though apparently all too common and easily recited idea that suicide is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Continuing to remain silent contributes to the stigma of suicide and mental illness. After all, silence is not neutral; only speaking up for the least, the last and the lost is right and good. And we as the people of God, who are supposed to have the very life of Love beating in our own hearts, are, quite frankly, failing to be so right and good. The Church’s relationship to mental suffering is, as with everything else, varied; it’s not all horrible. But just last week, I overheard a conversation in which a woman was telling her friend that she left the Church because – and I quote – “Christians are the least compassionate when it comes to suicide, mental illness and addiction.” Sisters and brothers in Christ, we have some work to do.
Suicide is not a permanent solution to a temporary problem because, first of all, it’s not a “solution” for anyone involved. It’s one result of what happens when pain becomes greater than the resources to cope with pain and, though suicide can be a spur-of-the-moment event, oftentimes depression is the culprit – in fact, untreated depression is the number one cause of suicide. Depression is not “a bad day” or “the blues.” It’s not feeling bad when something bad happens and it’s even more than feeling bad when something good happens. Depression isn’t somehow a false illness “just” because it’s a mental one; it is indeed “in your head” – it’s in your physical brain. It doesn’t make you “weak-willed” anymore than MS or cancer does. It is not something one can pull themselves out of, especially not alone, and it is time to stop expecting people to do so. We need to learn, out of respect for those (25 million in the US alone) who are bearing its heavy burden, not to throw the word “depression” around like it means the same thing as “sad.” It doesn’t.
And while we’re at it, depression is not something to snap out of, and it is not something that you can just positive thinking your way through. One of the funniest men in the world couldn’t do that (Robin Williams suffered from depression and addiction for years), not that we should let humor blind us to the underlying suffering many comedians endure, and we shouldn’t expect anyone to. All we’re doing when we trivialize by saying that it will get better, by saying we should reach out and care for one another but not actually doing so ourselves or by saying that what the sufferer of such unimaginable pain that they would even enter the unknown of death just to end it is heaping more pain onto someone who is already hurting so much. Whatever the reasons for suicide, that is not okay. You don’t prevent suicide by saying, as I’ve unbelievably also seen in comments, “suicides go to hell.” That just needs to stop, especially if we’re interested in actually preventing suicide and helping those in enough pain to think about it. No one alive knows what happens after we die and really, people commit suicide because they’re already *in* hell.
Suicide is also not the result of a person’s efforts to “solve” a “temporary” problem. In the first place, the problems driving a person to suicidality do not feel temporary to that person – hence, the suicidality. One friend said, upon learning of Robin William’s suicide, that suicide is strange. “It’s strange,” this friend said, “that these intense and dangerous feelings of hopelessness don’t have to correlate with actual hopelessness.” This divide between “feelings” and “reality” is rampant, especially when it comes to the mental illness community but what’s actually strange, at least to me, is how easily we forget that many times, our feelings are our reality. Feelings are always real in any case, even if they don’t reflect “reality” and to dismiss or ignore this fact is to cause further injury to those already wounded. If waking up every day wishing you hadn’t but having to put on a smile and look on the bright side anyway because the people you love and society in general are uncomfortable with your illness – which they generally don’t recognize as being legitimate at all – isn’t “actual” hopelessness, I don’t know what is. But furthermore, in the second place, who are we to judge the state of another’s problems? Depression, for example, is generally cyclical in nature, especially if not treated properly, and each episode seems to plunge one deeper; this problem is only as “temporary” as life is. Life may be short but it’s the longest thing we ever experience.
To say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem is also to imply that suicide is selfish or taking the easy way out. But often, people consider suicide for precisely unselfish reasons: they feel they are a burden on their loved ones, they perceive themselves to only be a problem to others and, if they are suffering from depression, they fear their failure to “snap out of it” is hurting and hindering those they care about. I’ll speak from my own experience here: during those moments, I have felt like the least important person in the world, that the last thing anyone needs is more of me and I did lose all hope for improvement. Pithy sayings do nothing to bring the desperately-needed healing, light or hope to those in such darkness by blaming and judging. **If you need help and hope, metanoia.org is a gentle, nonjudgmental collection of resources and a good place to start is their “if you are feeling suicidal now” page, written by “someone who knows what it’s like to be in pain.” And if you are caring for someone suffering from depression, this help guide is a great place to start.**
The Church is the Body of Christ: Jesus came for the least – He goes so far as to identify with them (Matthew 25:31-46); Jesus came for the lost – He goes after even one stray out of a hundred (Luke 15:3-7); Jesus came for the lost – He searches and saves them all (Luke 19:10). The Church, then, needs to be about the least, the last and the lost. Those who suffer from mental illness qualify – just as those who do not suffer from mental illness – and it’s time to put our efforts towards helping them hear, know and believe that.