This is a guest post from Dr. Mena Mirhom - a schizophrenia researcher at Columbia University and psychiatry instructor for Kaplan Medical, who has guest posted on my blog before. You can follow him on twitter or facebook or at his own personal blog. And if you too are interested in guest posting on my blog, please visit my Guest Post guidelines for more info.
The news of the passing of Robin Williams took the world by surprise. How is it possible for one of the most iconic and brilliant comedians of our childhood to commit suicide? How could someone who brought us so much JOY, have so much hidden PAIN? When the explanation is "he had depression," we sometimes can't help but trivialize it by pointing out irrelevant things like..."But he had it all!", "He was so funny!" or "He was so involved in charity!"
There are realities that the death of Robin Williams will hopefully force us to face.
1) HE'S NOT ALONE
I wish I could say that depression is as rare as the obscure genetic diseases we had to memorize in medical school. Depression affects more than 350 million people globally and is the leading cause of disability worldwide according to the World Health Organization. It's here to stay in our society and we have a responsibility to confront it with compassion and courage. Depression can be a catalyst for suicide -- an act that takes nearly 1 million lives worldwide every year.
We can't wait till the next high profile tragedy to remember that depression exists. How many suicides of famous actors will it take for us to believe that there is problem here? How many school shootings? Chances are, we will each deal with the struggle of mental illness ourselves in some form or through the struggle of friend or family member.
So, if you're struggling with depression, you're not alone either.
2) HIS ILLNESS WASN'T SIN
"Thank God that we're in the church. We don't have to deal with this," a relatively delusional church servant told me recently.
The newsflash for us here is that many people in the church are struggling with mental illness, many of whom are too ashamed to discuss it or get help because they are made to feel like this is something to repented of, not something to be treated for. There is no shame here.
While some sins can cause illness, illness in general is not a sin. Depression isn't a lack of Christian joy that's cured by multiple readings of St. Paul's epistle to the Phillipians. It isn't a selfish ego trip that is fixated on self and is cured by altruism.
It's an illness.
The weakness of our language is that we use the same word to describe a bad day at work and a debilitating and potentially fatal condition. Those two things are not the same. Christians in particular need to be very clear about this. We can't blame ourselves or allow others to make us feel guilty. Spiritual practices can always help but they are not the answer in and of themselves.
We sometimes forget that God invented medicine. We forget that healing always come from the True Physician and that doctors are a vehicle for that dispensation of His Grace and healing in a similar way that the priest is.
We must understand the role of medicine and know that God graciously provided it for our healing. There's nothing wrong with praying for God's healing of our diabetes and hypertension, but it would show a lack of faith God if we did not use the instruments of treatment that He provided (ie medicine) as we pray.
"Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him; for healing comes from the Most High (Sirach 38:1-2)
3) HE DESERVED HELP
Part of the struggle with depression is the feeling that you don't deserve help or that someone else out there has it worse than you do. This thinking can be a key feature of the disease and must be overcome in order to connect to the treatment resources that are available. If you're struggling with depression, you deserve the help also. And we all have a responsibility to help our brothers and sisters who struggle with this.
If you're in the New York metropolitan area and don't have access to care, St. Luke's is a free Coptic mental health center that may be able to help. Wherever you are, there's a wide variety of medications that can help. There are also several types of therapy and you can find a Christian counselor near you here.
If you need someone to talk to urgently, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For discussion: what do you think you can do to help decrease the stigma of mental illness?