Introduction: After reading the Bishop of Georgia’s E-Crozier post on the death of Robin Williams (printed in its entirety below) I was dumbstruck. As a mental health evangelist I could not help but respond with the following words:
My name is the Rev. Joani Peacock. I have been 20 years ordained and 10 years bipolar and balanced. I consider myself a “mental health evangelist” and I advocate for mental health education for all. I serve at Emmanuel Russell Rd in Alexandria, VA. I also am on staff at the library at Virginia Seminary. I have sponsored mental health forums on campus and am working with the administration to bring Mental Health First Aid Training on campus in the spring for the VTS community. 20% of all of us live with a mental health issue. 50% of us will in the course of our lives. Mental illness is an organic illness. Untreated mental illness is a deadly disease. We would never blame someone for dying of cancer because our culture considers cancer a “real” disease. Blaming someone who succumbs to the darkness of depression for taking their own life is beyond belief. Your post about Robin William’s death I find deeply disturbing for a Bishop of the Church.
You say that you have compassion for those who live with clinical depression yet it is apparent you actually know very little about the nature of mental illness. You applaud Robin William’s gifts as an entertainer but you fail to understand that his genius was fueled by the manic brilliance of his bipolar disorder. The cost of such brilliance was the depths of depression that led him to take his own life. That you label his act of desperation as “selfish” I find abhorrent. It is also exceedingly irresponsible to send this out to your diocese. Because of entrenched stigma around mental illness in our country, it is exceedingly difficult for people who have a mental health issue to seek help. 60% of those with mental illness never receive any treatment at all. In your post you offered no words of encouragement to your clergy or to parishioners about how to seek help. Instead you chose to label the dying person as selfish. I find this unconscionable. I strongly encourage you to take the time to educate yourself and your diocese. There are excellent resources at NAMI.org<http://NAMI.org> (The National Alliance on Mental Illness), DBSA.org<http://DBSA.org> (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance) and Mentalhealthfirstaid.org<http://Mentalhealthfirstaid.org>.
To eradicate such stereotypes and ignorance in the church I have come out of this particular closet to tell “Tales of a Manic Christian” from the first person point of view. Bipolar disorder is the gift that keeps giving in my family. The tales are often humorous and disarming but they are also exceedingly honest and hopefully enlightening. Hopefully reaching others who have similar stories to tell. So as a “mental health evangelist” I share them with you as well.
I ask you too in the name of the compassionate Christ who set the Gerasene Demoniac free, to take down your post on E-Crozier. And I pray you may reach out in compassion in a future post to those who live with mental illness.
The Rev. Joani Peacock
The Bishop of Georgia’s E-Crozier Post of August 29,2014
Robin Williams, My Friend, & The Selfishness of Suicide (eCrozier #229)
On August 29, 2014, by bishopbenhase
A lot’s been written already about Robin Williams’ suicide. Here, I’m less concerned with a hagiography of Mr. Williams or any analysis of the all too real problem of clinical depression in our society. Of the former, let me just say that he was a brilliant performer who brought much joy to millions of people, including me. Of the latter, all I can say is that far too many people suffer alone with such soul-deep depression and the disease’s very nature often dissuades people from seeking the help they desperately need.
But I’m more concerned here in the reactions I read from many people after Mr. Williams’ suicide. My hunch is that most people’s reactions were an effort to be kind or maybe helpful or, as Monty Python might sing, they were trying to “always look on the bright side of life.” Their reactions, however, probably masked their own unease with death, and particularly, with suicide. Many of the comments made, however, were at best not helpful, or at worst, theologically problematic. Let me explain.
I heard many comments that basically said something like: “Well, now the pain he endured for so long is lifted and he’s at peace.” I know such statements were an effort by some people to make suicide theologically intelligible, but to a person presently suffering soul-deep depression and hearing such statements, it’s actually an invitation to imitate Mr. Williams’ act. Their thinking could well go: “If so many people think that’s the way he found peace, then maybe that’s the way I can find peace, too.” Like I said, it’s theologically problematic, for suicide doesn’t bring peace to the living.
I had a dear friend who committed suicide four years ago. Like Mr. Williams, he was brilliant. His brilliance, however, was in a different vocation. He was a palliative care physician. The irony of his life was that he could relieve everyone’s pain but his own (like Mr. Williams who brought so many people joy without finding joy himself). My friend knew he had many people who loved him dearly. I don’t know what was going through his mind and soul when he chose suicide. Clearly, he was in emotional and spiritual pain. Maybe he thought his suicide was an act of love and kindness to us who loved him? It was not. His act was neither loving nor was it kind. It was selfish. I know that sounds harsh, but I believe it to be true.
What my friend needed and still needs from me isn’t the cheap grace and absolution of the well-intended “well, I guess he’s at peace now.” No, what he still needs from me is my forgiveness for what he did to himself and to those who loved him. This in no way diminishes the deep pain he suffered or the pain anyone else suffers when they experience soul-deep depression. It’s merely to say that the solution they choose deeply hurts the people who love them. And such hurt, we must know, breaks God’s heart. Yet, with all I know to be true, God’s broken heart is strong enough to envelope the life of Robin Williams and my beloved friend. It’s strong enough for the entire hurting human race. And God’s broken heart is strong enough to hold our grief and anger when those we love take their own lives. After all, God isn’t a stranger to death. We worship the crucified, yet Living God.
The Bishop very kindly responded but retracted nothing of what he said. So dear friends, I leave it to my readers to decide.
Wednesday, September 3 is #Act4MentalHealth Day sponsored by NAMI. Its a day to donate, educate and advocate for the mentally ill. If you are so moved please write to the Rt. Rev. Scott Anson Benhase at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And here is a bit of good news. An excerpt of E-Crozier was posted on TLC. After receiving my request to take it down, The Living Church has responded with compassion and posted my August 14 piece: “Lost in Space — Maybe, Lost to God — Never.”
The church of all places should be a haven of healing and hope. Let’s pray that it be so.