Thursday, 14 August 2014

Catholicism and Depression

Jesus at Gethsemane
On Tuesday, the world woke up to the news that depression had claimed the life of another well loved celebrity. Robin Williams will forever be remembered as a unique and madcap talent, famous for critically acclaimed films like The Fisher King, Good Morning Vietnam, Insomnia, Good Will Hunting, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Awakenings but also for crowd pleasers such as Mrs Doubtfire, Aladdin and Mork and Mindy. Whilst his genius clearly lay in comedy, his acting credits included a range of characters from the psychotic villain of One Hour Photo to the fragile but sympathetic psychologist of Good Will Hunting. It might seem ironic that someone who brought fun and laughter to millions should take their own life but Robin Williams had been battling with depression and drug and alcohol abuse for some time. Perhaps like many, laughter and comedy was a means of keeping the darkness at bay. [1]

Though death, particularly in tragic circumstances, can sometimes lead to somewhat effuse, superfluous hyperbole in eulogy, it appears that Williams was a generous and kindhearted man who was loved by his friends and family. [2] The Beatles suggested that "All you need is love" but that simply is not true. You also need Faith and Hope. People who do decide to take their own lives may no longer have faith in other people or believe that no-one has faith in them. They also do not hope for something better or beyond their suffering.

Sometimes, it is hard to accept depression in a Christian framework. If one is a practising Christian, fully convinced of God's love for them and the complete triumph of Christ on the Cross, what is there to fear? Is depression just a sign of a lack of Faith? Some Christian traditions appear to take this approach seemingly ignorant of Christ's own mental anguish (he was "deeply moved in spirit and troubled" and wept at the death of Lazarus [3]) and the whole tradition of lamentation evident in the Old Testament. "While research shows that some believers can be more resistant to depression... it is also true that some approaches to religion can be associated with higher rates of depression and emotional problems. When evaluating the power of belief to protect against emotional problems, the research seems to show that the question isn't "do you believe?" but rather what do you believe, how, and why?" [4]

The Catholic Church has not always had a complete understanding of suicide because previous generations had little understanding of the psychological causes and impact of depression - it was therefore always analysed in purely spiritual terms. Depression does not leave a person completely devoid of freewill, inexorably fixing them on the path to suicide nor can one overcome it by force of character, joyful obstinacy or a rigorous prayer regimen. As Simcha Fisher suggests, "Many people who are severely depressed are suffering from some combination of spiritual and physical ailments... they are dealing with some things that are out of their control and some things that are within their control... they need sacrificial love and patience from friends and family, and also some kind of hard work and self-knowledge in order to make it through the dark times."  [5] In short, depression is best treated through application of Faith and Reason:

My son, when you are sick do not be negligent,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
 Give up your faults and direct your hands aright,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice, and a memorial portion of fine flour,
and pour oil on your offering, as much as you can afford.
And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
let him not leave you, for there is need of him.
There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians,
for they too will pray to the Lord
that he should grant them success in diagnosis
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.
He who sins before his Maker,
may he fall into the care of a physician. [6]

Suicide is contrary to the Fifth Commandment and contrary to justice, hope, and charity. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbour because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God." [7] It was often believed to be the one sin for which one could not be forgiven because suicide was committed against Hope and the Holy Spirit - the giver of life [8]. For this reason, those who had committed suicide were often denied a Christian burial.

In the Catholic understanding, particular condemnation is reserved for those who encourage suicide as a viable social norm because all life, regardless of how humanity perceives it's value, is precious to God. This view also takes into account the salvific potential of suffering when united to Christ's passion, death and resurrection. "If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law." [9]

Today, the Church understands that as a person needs to be in full control of their faculties to bear the full responsibility of a sin, the gravity of suicide can be mitigated by its circumstances as "grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide." [10] It also actively encourages the faithful to pray for those who have died in such tragic circumstances: "We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives." [11] For those who are curious, the Patron Saints for those suffering with depression and anxiety are St Jude and St Dymphna whilst a specifically Catholic outlook on depression can be found in The Catholic Guide to Depression by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Msgr. John Cihak. [12]

Robin Williams' death is a tragedy devoid of blame or endorsement. It has brought out the voyeuristic worst in our celebrity obsessed culture and media [13] and the downright loathsome abuse of those in grief for a man they loved as friend, husband and father [14]. Christ has taken all suffering offered to Him through his passion, death and resurrection and transformed it - maybe in the manner of his death Robin Williams can convince some who need help to find it, just as they may have found solace in the manner of his life on screen. 

May choirs of angels come to greet him and speed him to paradise. May the Lord enfold him in His mercy. May he find eternal life.

The Resurrection

[3] John 11: 33 -35
see also
[6] Sirach 38:9-15
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2281
[8] Mt 12: 31
[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2282
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid, §2283

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