Robin Williams, Depression and the Church



My last two postings have been on the Dark Night of the Soul. This week, after the second posting, the news of Robin Williams’ suicide broke, and since then there has been a wide-ranging and nonstop conversation throughout our culture about depression, and while I deeply grieve the trigger, I gladly welcome the result. It’s long overdue. Depression is not well understood either by those who suffer from it, or by those who know and love people who do. And as the tragedy that is Robin William’s death so painfully shows, this kind of ignorance has devastating consequences.

Because everyone has periodic episodes of reactive or situational depression, stretches of feeling “blue” when things have not gone your way that becomes the interpretive grid that most people use to understand what depression is all about. It’s part of the inner response to an outer experience of loss, disappointment, failure, betrayal, sickness, discouragement or struggle. Something negative happens to us and depression is one of the things that we feel as we process the experience. It’s one of the phases or stages of adjustment; think of the way that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped the grief experience in her seminal work On Death and Dying – Shock, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Depression is just part of the journey, one of the steps along the way to healing. It’s real and it hurts, but it’s temporary, it passes. The circumstances change and we start to feel better. In fact, people in situational depression are often encouraged by their family members and friends to “get out,” to “do things” and “go places” in order to start to feel better.   Because it was a situation or a circumstance in your life that made you feel bad, just engineer a change in your situation or circumstances and you will start to feel good again, or so the conventional wisdom goes.


We used to have a Mary Englebreit illustration printed on a piece of fabric and hanging on a wall at the house. It showed a rather stern looking little girl with her feet firmly planted, her hands on her hips and a set to her jaw with the words in the text box over her head reading “Snap out of it!” And that’s what depressed people are expected to do. Because experiences of reactive depression pass with time, when it is perceived that someone is staying too long at the fair – that one is wallowing in their misery – this impatient little girl shows up with her scowl and her screech. And while this kind of “shock” therapy, this swift sharp whack up the side of the emotional head might work for someone who is situationally depressed, it can’t touch the other kind of depression that there is, “clinical” or “endogenous” depression.

If reactive depression starts outside of us with a difficult circumstance or a bad situation, constitutional depression starts inside of us. While reactive depression is triggered by something that happens to us externally, clinical depression is just part of the way that some of us are wired internally; it’s part of our state of being. The way that I have sometimes described my own experience of being clinically depressed is to say that while we all fall into deep, dark holes from time to time that we then have to climb out of, that there are some of us who find ourselves in holes so deep and dark that they can’t be climbed out of. They are not a temporary state, a passing emotion that we can “snap out of,” they are where we live.

Since his suicide, I’ve heard people in the media wonder about what could have been so terrible in Robin Williams’ life to have prompted him to do this. I’ve heard the speculations that he was having money problems, or relationship problems, or career problems – a cancelled television series, or a health problem – more heart disease, or a substance abuse problem, and that it was this problem, whatever it was, that prompted him to take his life. But that’s reactive depression thinking in a clinical depression life. Something didn’t happen to Robin Williams this week that resulted in one desperately bad and irreversible decision. No, Robin Williams was sick; had been for a long time, and it was that disease – clinical depression – that killed him. Like any disease, you can live with clinical depression, function at a very productive and creative level, even while you are desperately ill. Think Abraham Lincoln. Think Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Think Vincent Van Gogh. Think Ernest Hemingway. This is what has confused so many people about Robin Williams. We saw his genius. His gifts were obvious to us. His accomplishments were great. But all of this happened against the backdrop of his very real suffering from a very real disease.

A few years ago we admired the strength of Patrick Swayze as he continued to act while battling terminal cancer. And when his disease finally claimed him, in the sadness of his death there was a widespread recognition of the courage that he had displayed in the way that he had continued to ply his craft when it would have been so easy for him to just have rolled over and quit. He “played hurt,” and we greatly respected it, even saw it as “heroic.” Well, so did Robin Williams, only it appears that he “played hurt” for his entire career. But because his terminal disease was mental rather than physical, it’s unlikely that his passing will be viewed by society at large in the same way. But I do. For all of the sadness of this week, I want to go on record here with my admiration, respect and honor for the courage and strength of Robin Williams.

Some of the most courageous people I know are those who battle mental illness. There are men and women all around you every day in the cubicle next to yours at work and on the pew next to you in worship who have to muster every last ounce of strength they have just to get out of bed in the morning to step into another day. They carry burdens and fight battles that we can’t even begin to imagine. And because we just don’t “get it,” because we don’t understand mental illness as a disease that is just as real and devastating as cancer, diabetes or emphysema, we think that these people could “snap out of it” if they really wanted to. Tell that to the next person you see having a heart attack!

It was in a class on ministry that I took in seminary taught by Dr. Charles Kemp that I first heard the quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” He said that this was one of the most basic principles of pastoral care. And if Robin William’s tragic death this week is to have any enduring impact on us, I urge it to be this.

In Matthew 12:20, it was said of Jesus Christ that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” In the history of interpretation these descriptions have been applied to the discouraged and the disheartened, to those who have been overwhelmed by their lives and are just barely hanging on. And it seems to me that the stance that Jesus took toward such people should be the stance that we as part of His church ought to be taking as well, and this begins with simple kindness, and a recognition of the depth and the darkness of the fight that so many find themselves in every single day.  DBS+


I highly recommend –

Robin w





Filed under Soundings

5 responses to “Robin Williams, Depression and the Church

  1. zathra

    It was reported that Robin Williams had also been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Perhaps that added to his burden. He maybe took a speculative look into the future & saw the flame of his energy stifled, his creativity dampened as it progressed. I don’t know how many people would react similarly.

  2. Zena McAdams

    As it turns out, PD was the final battle for Robon Williams. It is a terrible reality–often resulting in a fatalistic life view. Thx for the excellent blog on depression. It, too, is a painful reality for many of us.

  3. Helen marshall

    As someone who is all too familiar with depression I applaud your blog. As I told you before, I have dealt with depression just about all my adult life. To me there is something about the folks that are wired to be good helping giving souls are also wired for depression. I am the third generation in my family that is wired like this but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back farther. Back men were required by our culture to go out and work and be the “big strong provider and women were told they needed to be the nurturing and always cheerful mom. My great grandfather had a business that failed and two children that died before adulthood. His first born son dropped dead at the age of 29 from some kind of unknown heart ailment. He saw a man burn his house down when he was a child of only four. Did he suffer from depression? I don’t know but it is quite possible. When bad things happen those of us that are wired this way, it just affects us differently, we internalize it and it puts us farther down in a deep hole. After a while that hole is dark, deep and so dry and dusty that we can’t get out of it. People make fun of the souls that have sought help and are on medication. My husband did until he watched me go down that hole after our child was born and watched medication pull me out of it. When I heard about Robin Williams, I felt his soul. Perhaps medications were not working for him anymore. He had started drinking again and had gone to rehab. Drinking is a way for those wired souls to medicate themselves and to feel numb and not think about depression. I would never condone suicide but as a RN and someone who has dealt with depression, I can understand why it seems like a viable way to get rid of the pain that you just can’t get rid of. It’s like having a terminal illness that some of so many of my patient’s have had over the years. I don’t excuse it but I sure can understand the pain.

  4. Sue Kesler

    Excellent article. Thank you Doug for sharing – especially from such a personal level. My prayers for all people have radically chanded through Robin Williams death and the light that has been shed on this subject. Again, thank you.

  5. Helen

    It turns out that Mr. Williams had what’s called Lewy Body Dementia. It has the same symptoms as Parkinson’s only worse. The definitive diagnosis can only be made at autopsy so the doctor couldn’t diagnose the difference. I have read that his family said that he had bouts of paranoia and started carrying around multiple watches. He was probably all too aware of his issues in his lucid moments.

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