By Alan Rudnick
As most everyone has heard, Robin Williams died on Tuesday from an apparent suicide. The reaction on Facebook and Twitter was one of shock.
How could someone who brought so much joy and humor to the world be so troubled?
Williams brought us a diversity of characters in his movies and television shows. I remember as a child watching reruns of Mork and Mindy and wondering, “Who is this guy? He’s so funny!” His films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Good Will Hunting, Mrs. Doubtfire and Hook are now classics running regularly on TV. His long filmography on IMDb yields several scrolls with the mouse.
As reports surfaced of his drug and alcohol abuse, we began to learn of a troubled man. Williams’s apparent depression most likely led him down the path of suicide. Unfortunately, some have made hurtful comments. Fox News anchor Shepherd Smith gave his own unhelpful perspective of the nature of suicide:
“One of the children he so loved, one of the children grieving tonight, because their father killed himself in a fit of depression…. You could love three little things so much, watch them grow, they’re in their mid-20s, and they’re inspiring you…. And yet, something inside you is so horrible or you’re such a coward or whatever the reason that you decide that you have to end it. Robin Williams, at 63, did that today.”
These types of statements are not only harmful but fundamentally show how many do not understand the nature of depression and suicide.
As a pastor, I experience a sense of shock from time to time when I learn of personal demons eating away at people. On the outside, they look fine or maybe are just having a bad day, but on the inside they are in severe pain. When someone discloses their inner anguish to me, it is usually at the point of breaking.
In our churches, we have such a lack of support and understanding of mental health. In churches, there is a stigma attached to people who need to see a counselor, therapist or psychiatrist. I find that most people in church keep their mental health needs secret. They do not want to even share their struggles with close friends for fear of judgment. Men, especially, are reluctant to disclose their troubles because they do not want to be seen as “weak.”
The shock surrounding Williams’s death reveals a reality within our churches: we are poorly prepared to support those with mental health needs. Many Christians want to keep a face or appearance of “everything’s great” but do not have the capacity or opportunity to say, “Help!”
Last Sunday, I listened to a woman at church tell of her problems with her health and family. She shared the weight of her mental anguish. I offered the church’s assistance with meals and rides to appointments, and for folks to help her with other arrangements. She paused, hesitated and stammered, “I … have such a hard time … asking for help. There’s so much on my mind. Thank you.”
We may not be able to solve all the mental health challenges of folks in church, but we can do some simple things to create a hospitable culture for those in anguish. Our churches need to be structured and conditioned in such a way as to respond with grace, compassion and love to those who are struggling. Churches must work to end the stigmas attached to the needs of mental health.
Church leaders and pastors must preach the gospel of good mental health as well as good spiritual health.