Making sense of suicide (and Matt Walsh’s nonsense)

by Grace Boey

Suicidal-Fingers-depression-23530251-481-720Imagine this: someone secretly laces your coffee with meth, every morning, for 28 mornings. Over the first week, you become increasingly hyperactive, and start to bubble with confidence and energy. You feel great, but by day 7, your behaviour starts to get erratic, and you’re irritated with everyone else who can’t keep up. By day 21, you’re having flashes of paranoia, and freak out from time to time because your mind keeps racing, and you’re convinced everyone’s watching you move too fast.

By day 28, you haven’t slept for a week. You feel invincible, so much so that you decide to take all the drugs you’ve got to see if it will kill you. Because that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? And if it does kill you, you’ll die feeling amazing… and dying would be such an incredible thing to do. In fact, this had damn well better be fatal. Thanks to the meth and sleep deprivation, you are so confused, irrational and psychotic, that this babbling seems entirely sensible.

Was the suicide attempt ‘your own decision’, in any meaningful sense? Of course it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t my decision, when those very events happened to me a couple of years ago. The only difference? No one had secretly laced my coffee with drugs (though they might as well have). The terrifying effects were a product of my very first full-blown bipolar manic episode. Thankfully, I survived—although the doctors who treated me assured me I could just as easily not have. I had no clue what was happening at the time; my mania had swept me away, before I even realized anything was amiss.

Despite all this, people like Christian blogger Matt Walsh would say I had committed a “terrible, monstrous atrocity” that was entirely my decision. On August 12, one day after Robin Williams appeared to have killed himself as a result of depression, Walsh published an article with the headline “Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice.” In it, he claimed that “suicide does not claim anyone against their will”. Depression—and by extension of Walsh’s arguments, all mental illness—is not responsible for suicide: you are. When a huge backlash ensued, he stuck to his guns and wrote a detailed response to his critics.

When I first came across the headline of Walsh's original post, I took a deep breath, read the article, took another deep breath… and read it again. My conclusion at the end of this exercise was the exactly same as my initial response: what a load of exploitative, uninformed rubbish. Walsh's statements reflect deep misconceptions about mental illness, competent decision-making and ‘free will’, which (unfortunately) hinge on the supernatural metaphysics that accompanies Christianity. It angers me that someone like this should feel entitled to piss on the grave of Robin Williams with a headline like that. And personally, as someone who has attempted suicide under the grips of both mania and depression, I am insulted by Walsh's backward ideas.

The irrationality of the suicidal

The first thing that everyone should know about mental illness is this: it renders its victims irrational. Where there once stood a person fully capable of making informed decisions, there is now someone whose mind is severely compromised by irrational, or even delusional, thoughts. The degree to which this happens varies; sometimes, the sufferer is still self-aware enough to know that some of his thoughts are irrational. But sometimes, mental illness gets so severe the sufferer loses all self-awareness of his irrationality. And when someone is in the full grips of his mental illness, all attempts to analyze, justify or understand the sufferer’s actions through a rational framework are mistaken.

In retrospect, I shake my head at the narrative of ‘reasoning’ that drove my suicide attempts. I’ll leave it up to the reader to make sense (or… not) of why I tried to kill myself while manic. As for my depressed attempt, I genuinely believed that obliterating myself would make the world a better place, and bring my friends and family happiness and relief. As ridiculous as those thoughts were, I will never beat myself up for attempting suicide—because I know that at those moments, no amount of proper reasoning could have saved me.

Essentially, sensible reasons against suicide fly out the window, once you try applying them to someone who’s actually about to do it. Here’s what Matt Walsh has to say about why suicide is wrong: first, it is a “complete, total, absolute rejection of life.” It is also the “final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope.” Last, and perhaps most importantly, suicide reflects “the willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”

Unfortunately for Walsh, it is extremely common for someone who’s depressed to think that the world would be a better place without them. This was the case with me. Someone suffering from severe depression can become entirely convinced that this is true, even if it seems apparent to outsiders that it isn’t—and that the only way out is to take his own life.

The compromised will, and the uninformed choice

Another thing Walsh stresses is how suicide “does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice.”

Why does Walsh say suicide is a choice? Before going into that, here’s the next thing that everyone should understand about mental illness: that it radically complicates notions of ‘will’ and ‘choice’ by compromising its victims’ rationality in ways beyond their control. Normal adults are assumed to have some sort of ‘will’, or autonomy over their actions. An autonomous person has the rational capacity to make informed, un-coerced choices.

But when someone has a sub-optimal grasp of his actions and reality—as is the case with mental illness—his autonomy is compromised. Such individuals do not have the capacity to make informed choices, and no longer have what we think of as unfettered free will. Effectively, what this means is that an extremely depressed person makes the ‘choice’ to kill himself in a similar way to a 9-year-old who makes the ‘choice’ to have sex with a persuasive 30-year-old.

Moving back to Walsh, one reason why he says that suicide is a choice is this: it requires the physical action of its perpetrator. He says, “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 … can’t kill you on its own. It needs you to pull the trigger, take the pills, or hang the rope.” The big problem with this, though, is that there’s a clear difference between a mere physical action and a meaningful choice. Anyone who grasps the idea of autonomy should know this—and unfortunately, it seems that Walsh doesn’t. Or, if he does, he doesn’t seem to grasp the radical implications it has for the ‘will’.

The next argument Walsh has for suicide being a choice is this: “If suicide is not a choice, why do we tell people not to do it? Why do we tell them to get help? Why do we try to stop them? … What would you say to someone who tells you they are suicidal and they feel like they have no choice but to kill themselves?”

Here is my response: if you ever manage to convince a seriously suicidal person to step away from the ledge, thank your lucky stars that you managed to strike the fancy of whatever whim it was in his muddled brain that made him step away. Or, be grateful that he wasn’t too far gone, that some small part within him was still rational, and that it happened to surface at the right time. Don't for a second think that that person on the ledge stepped back because of your superior reasoning skills. And don’t you dare presume that someone who went through with suicide ‘refused’ to listen to you, as if it was some kind of willfully selfish act he committed by jumping off that ledge.

One last reason Walsh gives for not calling suicide a choice is that it would “steal hope” from the suicidal person; we must call it a choice because “those on the brink need to be empowered”. Unfortunately, it's wishful thinking to think that something's true just because it “empowers” someone. And Walsh claims to “say these things for the living, not the dead”; he claims not to “blame” or judge the dead. Yet, if speaking for the living truly had nothing to do with assessing the actions of the deceased, there was absolutely no need for Walsh to invoke the spirit of Robin Williams.

Christian metaphysics and mental illness

It’s useful—in fact, crucial—to note that Walsh's Christian faith seems to infect his beliefs about mental illness and suicide. This is worth a brief look.

Christianity requires a believer to subscribe to at least two metaphysical positions: first, that there is a non-material soul distinct from our physical bodies—a prerequisite for the possibility of heaven and hell. Here is Walsh on what this means for mental illness:

“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.”

(For the record, I am an atheist and materialist, and believe that depression has biological, psychological and social roots. Materialism does not necessitate mental illness being diseases of the brain.)

The second thing Christians commit to is that humans enjoy free will in the fullest sense, and are always accountable for our own actions. It is a central tenet of Christianity that man is always free to obey or disobey God’s moral rules; also, it is said in the Bible that God will not tempt you beyond what you can bear. Walsh doesn’t explicitly address this point, but quite plausibly it has something to do with why he keeps harping on the notions of ‘will’ and ‘choice’.

What these two positions mean for mental illness, essentially, is that—short of being possessed by another soul—a mentally ill person still always retains a some significant amount of free and autonomous will. No amount of changes in physical brain chemistry can take that will away—although, presumably, brain chemistry has some influence on the soul. (How does all of this hang together? Don’t ask me.)

This is deeply troubling, because it is yet another example of the way religious faith infects and subverts reason and evidence in a crucial debate. No amount of reasoning will persuade the fervently religious to change their mind—which is, when you think about what we've been discussing, kind of ironic.

Making sense of suicide

Ultimately, how should outsiders make sense of someone else’s suicide when it happens, especially when mental illness is involved? First, don’t impose rational standards on the person. Second, understand that there was a big chance that his autonomy was severely compromised, and that—if he was mentally troubled—his ‘will’ was radically transformed. Keep these things in mind while trying to wrap your head around the act.

There is, though, another problem that’s often overlooked in the discussion. We are often asked to show some ‘empathy’ for victims of suicide and mental illness. Yet, surely there's a problem with asking someone to ‘put themselves in the sufferer’s shoes’ when they have no experience with the relevant disease. It’s quite often impossible for non-sufferers to fully comprehend the phenomenology of mental sickness. It’s hard for me to explain to others what goes on in my head when I’m manic, or extremely depressed—or what it feels like to constantly oscillate between the two. And I (as a bipolar person) would never presume to know what it’s like to have schizophrenia, or OCD.

So my message is this: mental illness is so transformative that you should not even presume yourself capable of putting yourself into a victim's shoes. Does this mean we may never be able to make full sense of someone else’s suicide? Perhaps—and this will be a sad struggle for loved ones of the deceased. But, for people like Matt Walsh who feel entitled to exploit Robin Williams’ death with post-hoc sideline commentary, I only have this to say: someone else’s suicide is none of your business.