Mental Illness and the Notion of “Choice”

In the wake of the shocking death of Robin Williams, there’s been a lot about depression and suicide in the news and social media, some of it very good, much of it sheer nonsense.

I don’t think we’ve ever had a national moment quite like this, in which a beloved entertainer, known for making people laugh, takes his own life. It seems incongruous to many, and the reactions emphasize how little most people understand about mental illness, particularly depression. There’s been a lot of idiotic armchair psychoanalysis and tone-deaf commentary from people who clearly have not a clue.

And, you know, people who don’t have a clue should probably shut up about it. It is not anything that can ever, even by the most empathetic people, be understood from the outside. Any attempt by an outsider to quantify and explain it will be spotted for the hollow nonsense it is by those suffer, and just create further layers of misunderstanding for those who don’t.

Yes, in a general sense, Robin Williams had a “choice” to kill himself or not. His act was an act of the will. No one has to kill himself. It’s always–always–the wrong thing to do. Of course it is a “bad choice,” but that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

Mental illness compromises the functioning of both the will and the intellect. It can warp the intellect until right judgment is no longer possible, and damages the will so that choosing the proper action is no longer a simple matter.

Thus, the language of “choice” is the wrong way to explain it. Since most people understand a choice as a largely binary decision making process between clear alternatives (and nothing can be as clear and stark as the choice between life and death), it conveys the wrong notions about an act of self-harm. It makes it sound like choosing a pair of pants or something to eat for lunch.

Quite obviously, if the will and intellect are properly ordered, a human being will not choose gratuitous self-destruction, which should give pundits a clue that it’s not really about a rational “choice,” but about a disease which can compromise the very ability to make rational choices.

The goal of the mental health professional is to help someone with mental illness repair that damaged thought process, so that a proper choice becomes obvious to the intellect and possible for the will. That’s why intervention can be so successful for those with suicidal thoughts. It enables the person who’s suffering to get assistance for their compromised thoughts and emotions.

The struggle is to get by each day–one day at a time–without self-destructing: to think clearly enough to know that there’s a day beyond this one. As those days line up and get harder and harder, this becomes more and more difficult, which is why it has to be a daily fight made with the assistance of God, friends, family, and professional help.

Suicide is a mirage: it appears to offer relief. It doesn’t. It merely snuffs out all hope as the individual surrenders to despair rather than trusting in God and praying for a better tomorrow.

Each tomorrow is a chance, and if a thousand tomorrows don’t bring relief, then you just have to hold on for 1001.

Faith also has a role to play in healing those who suffer various forms of mental illness, and we should place our burdens on the shoulders that carried the cross. I think the Catholic Guide to Depression does a decent job of explaining the subject. It’s also something I’ve written about here.