Robin Williams is dead. It is a tragedy. The greater tragedy is that he committed suicide. The greatest tragedy is that we can’t talk about it, not honestly. When Christian blogger Matt Walsh attempted to do so, the purveyors of moral preening, both Right and Left, came out of the woodwork to exercise their lungs and position themselves as righteous. Their case amounted to this: how dare he suggest that eliminating the stigma of suicide isn’t the best suicide prevention technique.
I read and re-read his post, trying to find the passage that invited all this scorn. Here’s the most offensive passage to the virgin eyes of the twenty-first century:
It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.
I don’t think any of Walsh’s critics—the people who pretended to know who he was before yesterday—got past this point. Twitter is a game of telephone played out in real time across millions of computer screens. Walsh’s message of fighting despair with joy was transmogrified into a condemnation of Williams by the web’s gatekeepers. Strawmen—“he said depression isn’t a disease/religious people don’t get depression/you can cure it with God or something!”—were erected and torn down with a simple “ugh.” The common critique went something along the lines of, “I can tell he’s never suffered from crippling depression,” which means most didn’t reach the penultimate paragraph, in which Walsh admits to his lifelong struggle with depression. To say that the howlers displayed a total lack of charity in accusing Walsh of being uncharitable is an understatement.
Suicide: A Symbol of Martyrdom
The outrage over Walsh’s column points to the changing status of suicide in our new world. Self-annihilation, once regarded by the Christian West as the greatest sin, is now treated through the prism of Eastern religions: the ultimate symbol of martyrdom.
Williams picked up that the Eastern view may carry the day in his 2009 dark comedy, “World’s Greatest Dad.” The comedian plays Lance Clayton, a struggling writer and teacher who covers up his malcontent son’s death by autoerotic asphyxiation. He pens a suicide letter and hangs his son’s lifeless body with a belt (hauntingly similar to Williams’ own death). The letter reaches the school and suddenly his friendless son becomes universally adored. The teacher’s empty classroom is cluttered with eager students hoping to touch the hem of his garment. His son’s ghost-written, post-mortem “journal” attracts the attention of publishers, producers, and Oprah.
Suicide, for all its tragedy and hurt, is now treated with a degree of awe from the living, as the New Yorker’s Emily Greenhouse pointed out in March.
Despite the numbers and the losses, suicide is a phenomenon we push away, we mystify, even—it must be said—romanticize, as if science cannot begin to confront its cause. We invoke the brilliance and torment of women like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, in whose suicides we see mystical forces that speak of the suffering of artists. We’ve diagnosed something similar in the recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, from a drug overdose, in order to make sense of, to celebrate, his art.
A Suicide Epidemic
We are, as Greenhouse says, in the midst of a suicide epidemic. After years of decline, the suicide rate began a steady climb in the opening years of the twenty-first century, and has now surpassed auto accidents, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Between 1990 and 2000, the suicide rate decreased from 12.5 suicide deaths to 10.4 per 100,000 people in the population. Over the next 10 years, however, the rate generally increased and by 2011 stood at 12.3 deaths per 100,000.
The rate has jumped more than 20 percent since the 1950s, an era that carried all the ingredients for a suicide culture. Guns, the weapon of choice for suicide, were more widely available during the Cold War era than today. We didn’t know that post-traumatic stress disorder existed, let alone how to treat it. We hadn’t yet developed the seemingly limitless treatment options or suicide prevention infrastructure that we have in place now. Seeing a therapist was considered a moral failing, rather than a perfectly healthy treatment.
America has made a ton of progress in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, which helps explain why only 2 percent of those diagnosed with clinical depression commit suicide. That has not stopped the culture from laying the blame of all suicides on depression, the disease, rather than depression, the feeling.
Suicide as a Cultural Cudgel
Even more disturbing is the modern trend of weaponizing suicide as a cultural cudgel. In January, the Grantland blog exposed an Arizona entrepreneur as a con artist, who lied about his credentials, to sell golf clubs. The alleged con artist happened to be transgendered with a history of suicide attempts and sadly killed himself in the midst of the investigation. Following the publication, liberals called for the reporter’s arrest on hate-crime charges.
The reporter escaped prosecution, but not everyone has been so lucky. Bullies, real and imagined, have been charged in connection with the suicide of classmates, as if society could really determine without any doubt what eventually pushed the victim to the point of no return. It may send a strong message to would-be tormentors, but it also creates perverse incentives for anyone entertaining the idea of self-destruction. A teen who feels powerless against grade school bullies in life may see death as the only way to fight back. Martyrdom, as we’ve seen from Islam, can be quite tempting for those who think they have nothing else to lose.
Our current culture frowns on stigma, thinks that any objective judgment of good or bad is itself a sin against our fellow citizens. But no culture crafts stigmas for stigma’s sake. Perhaps our ancestors recognized that suicide harms more than just the victim of the act. New studies appear to confirm that they recognized something that the fire-breathing empathizers of the day willfully ignore: suicide begets more suicide.
That suicide is contagious is a widely held–and controversial–theory. A groundbreaking new study co-authored by a University of Ottawa researchers has found that teens who know of a schoolmate who died of suicide are far more likely to think about or attempt suicide than those with no ‘exposure.’ ‘It’s solid evidence that supports a theory that has been around for a long time–that suicide contagion is real,’ says Dr. Ian Colman, Canada Research Chair in Mental Health Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa, who wrote the paper with Sonja Swanson of the Harvard School of Public Health. ‘I hope schools and school boards take it seriously.’
Every suicide is a tragedy. All of our brothers and sisters afflicted with depression deserve our prayers and attention. Our ultimate goal, our duty to those entertaining suicidal thoughts, should be to prevent suicides.
Removing the individual element of the act may make for good moral posturing on Twitter, but it does little to help the suicidal. Telling someone they have a disease rather than a feeling, that they are slaves to brain chemistry, is not empathy, nor is it empowering. It’s destructive. When we absolve the dead of responsibility for their self-inflicted demise, we are taking part in a grand cover-up. It’s a lot like turning an autoerotic asphyxiation into a hanging.