Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Mental Illness as a Spiritual Issue: A Reflection on Matt Walsh's post about Robin Williams

I read Matt Walsh's blog post "Robin Williams didn't die from a disease, he died from his own choice," and I wanted to hate it. Ok, well, I hated most of it. I vehemently disagree with most of what he wrote, and find parts of it far too shaming of people who die by suicide. In fact, I don't particularly like most of what he writes on his blog in general. We just don't line up politically, and that is fine.

I don't think arguing with him is the best course of action, but I do want my own readers to know where I stand on the basics of some of what Walsh said.

I disagree with Walsh where he says:
"First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice. He died by his own hand. Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope. To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw."

I think this is too simplistic a look at the disease of mental illness. I do believe mental illness is very much like cancer, and that the disease has the ability to take over our mind enough that we do not have a choice. Just like cancer can progress so far that no amount of radiation or treatment will save a person, the mind can be so compromised that people can no longer save themselves. I have seen people get at that threshold. The mind can break, just like any part of the body can.

Our mind is what controls everything. Our mind controls our ability to choose, and if the mind is ill enough, then it makes sense that such a choice may at some point become unavailable to us. From Williams' recent stay in rehab, we can tell that he was reaching out. He was trying to intervene with his illness early enough and trying not to get to that threshold where suicide would claim him against his will. We don't understand mental illness enough to know if a person is safe being left alone for five minutes, or not. We don't have a test to show how broken the brain is at any point, and if a person is at risk of death by suicide. Death by suicide is not an "excuse." Talking with compassion, rather than shame as Walsh's post does, about people who have died by suicide does not increase the incidence of it. Having a compassionate stance on death by suicide, just like we have with death from other illnesses, gets us talking about it. This allows people to know that it is safe to reach out before their mind has completely shut down so that they have more of a chance of recovery.

I could go into more details of the other parts of Walsh's post I disagree with, but I think this gives a basic overview: I fundamentally do see mental illness in the same way as other illnesses, and I take a hard, shame-free stance, when talking about death by suicide. (Here is a great post on how mental illness is not selfish.)

Rock balancing, spiritual practice taught to me by my therapist. Photo Copyright Katie Norris.

The one point Walsh brings up that I do think is worth taking a deeper look at is this:
"I can understand atheists who insist that depression must only be a disease of the brain, as they believe that our entire being is contained by, and comprised of, our physical bodies. But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other. This is a radically materialist view now shared by millions of spiritualist people."

First of all, I know a lot of atheists, and I have ministerial colleagues who are atheists, so I won't even argue how Walsh's definition of atheism that supposes atheists have nothing to do with spirituality is inaccurate. Theist or not, I do think there is a point here that mental illness is also a spiritual issue. I define the spiritual or divine as that which you feel is greater than yourself. For some people the spirit is a personal soul, for others it is God, for others it is the energy of the Universe that created us and holds us all together, and yet for others it is the connection between humans or even our own connection to our deep inner selves. All things are connected, and I would say that all disease is spiritual as well as physical. Most of the world's religions understand there is a connection between mind, body, and spirit. We need to treat all illnesses from a spiritual perspective, as well as a physical one, and that is why I think Walsh does bring up a good point about mental illness being a spiritual issue.

I love the line from the musical, Next to Normal, (about a woman, Diana, with bipolar disorder) where Diana sings "What if the cut, the burn, the break, was never in my brain, or in my blood, but in my soul?" This was referring to the fact that, while she had a lot of medical intervention, part of her illness was triggered by the death of her son, This was a spiritual loss, which her husband refused to address, and which was not a main part of her treatment.

I do think that one of the things missing in mental health treatment is the spiritual aspect, and that is one reason why we have such low success rates for treatment.

I would encourage people to read Lissa Rankin, MD's book "Mind Over Medicine" for a great resource on the current research on how the mind, body, and spirit are connected. It is the perfect mix of how a medical and spiritual model can meld together. I love her "Whole Health Cairn," which depicts stones balancing on top of each other that show what you need for whole health. The stones are housed within a bubble of service, love, pleasure, and gratitude. Many of the "stones" we need to balance for whole health are spiritual, such as the biggest base stone being our "inner pilot light." Rankin says: "Your Inner Pilot Light is that ever-radiant, always-sparkly, 100% authentic, totally effervescent spark that lies at the core of you. Call it your essential self, your divine spark, your Christ consciousness, your Buddha nature, your higher self, your soul, your wise self, your intuition, or your inner healer. The minute sperm met egg, this part of you ignited, and it’s been glowing away ever since."

So yes, I see mental illness as a physical and spiritual issue, and in order to have a good treatment plan, one must work on the spiritual side as well. For each of us that is different. For some it will be a deep belief and connection to God or Jesus, for others of us it will be a focus on spending time in nature. I strongly believe though that all of us need to have a connection with our own inner pilot light in order to heal. You will notice this being important even in Walsh's post, where he says, in struggling with his own depression,: "When we are depressed, we have trouble seeing joy, or feeling it, or feeling worthy of it. I know that in my worst times, at my lowest points, it’s not that I don’t see the joy in creation, it’s just that I think myself too awful and sinful a man to share in it."

If we do not have a connection to our soul, our inner pilot light, our deepest selves, then yes we see ourselves as awful, sinful, or bad. I would say, we feel shameful, as Brene Brown, PhD defines shame as the belief of: "I am bad." In all the people I work with who have mental illness, this is the sticking point, the core belief, that few people seem to understand, and medications have a very hard time treating. I believe this is the extra work, the spiritual work, that we need to do in order to decrease the rates of death by suicide. I also believe this is why we can not talk about death by suicide as a "choice," "excuse," or "selfish." Such shaming talk reinforces the core belief that we are bad, which worsens mental illness. Plus, shame is the opposite of empathy, and as Dr. Brene Brown says, shame cannot survive empathy." So what we really need is an empathetic response to suicide, suicidality, and mental illness if we are ever to help people heal. That is the spiritual work we need to do as a community.


Rev. Katie

P.S. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please reach out. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. I have called, I know many like me who have called, and they help. 

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