Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Response to Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh’s blog post about the suicide of Robin Williams is really, horribly, outrageously awful. From the generally demonizing language he uses to describe the act of suicide and therefore, by extension, the people who commit suicide, all the way to the words "joy is the only thing that defeats depression," his post blatantly misunderstands and misrepresents this mental illness. It perpetuates false and damaging ideas about depression specifically and mental illness generally, the kind of ideas that stunt society’s ability to understand and therefore handle and treat mental illnesses.

I know I’m not the only one who is incredibly over individuals perpetuating ignorance that effects people on a societal level. I really only read the blog hoping he’d have something worthwhile to say – and he did, when he spoke about the effect of suicide on friends and families or the danger of slogans like “Genie you’re free” that have cropped up around Robin Williams’ suicide. Maybe if he had spent more time on those topics the post over all would have been a more positive experience, but for the most part reading the post was just frustrating, for so many reasons.

Walsh claims to have struggled with depression, something which I won’t contest (I don’t know and won’t claim to) but this claim comes off more as an attempt to create an aura of authority through experience rather than a genuine revelation. The only reason this point bothers me is because what Walsh actually does is lord his success in that battle over the people who are currently losing it or have already lost. Joy is the only thing that defeats depression? If you're depressed you often are incapable of finding joy, especially in the love that surrounds you. Depression obscures your sense of reality and self (which he actually did a good describing) and makes you incapable of seeing how you have earned or deserve the love others give you. You feel guilty for taking up their love, which you imagine would be better spent on someone else. The way Walsh frames it, you’d think a person who’s depressed could simply wake up one morning and decide, “Hey, you know what would be a better idea? Joy. Joy would be better. I’ll do that instead.” Then bam – just like that they’ve found the light again.

That is not how it fucking works.

Walsh calls depression a “spiritual problem” without defining exactly what “spiritual” means in this context. The fact that this is paired with his ongoing talking about “light” and “darkness” and joy and love being the reason we exist and the things that brought us into existence leads to a very Christian-feeling paradigm being forced onto the issue. Aside from the fact that this excludes and alienates people of other faiths or no faith, it paints depression in broad, simple strokes as a matter of good vs. bad. On a very basic level this might true: choosing to fight and live despite how hard it is is the best possible outcome. Choosing suicide is the worst possible outcome. But this has nothing to do with depression itself.

Furthermore this dichotomy blatantly disregards chemical causes for depression. Depression is a chemical matter, regardless of how you look at it. Sometimes it’s caused by an event or a series of events which leaves a person wounded and unable to heal themselves. That is the kind of depression I’ve been fighting this past year – the kind of depression one of my besties has also been fighting for a year and another has been fighting for two. Sometimes shit happens and we have to fight through the aftermath, and sometimes that fight can be almost insurmountable. (Aside: this is the only thing I can think of as making sense as “spiritual” – the kind of depression which results from an injury or multiple injuries done to the heart and soul, the emotions and mind.) But even this kind of a depression involves chemicals in the brain: something bad happens and your brain responds to that stimuli. The chemical levels in your brain are altered by that stimuli and that can have a lasting effect. The event itself, the memory of it, the injury it did, can continue to affect those chemical levels, or perhaps those chemical levels continue to respond to ongoing struggles with the reality of those events. No individual experience is exactly the same.

While I believe very strongly in therapy over medication, chemicals do play an enormous role in depression and I recognize that sometimes medication is the only thing which can elevate a person to the place of being able to find light in the darkness. While therapy can help us process events that have caused depression or other disruptions in our mental processes, sometimes medication is needed to get a person to the point of being able to take that work and use it to heal. And sometimes a person’s brain just plain has a chemical imbalance. My first bout of depression, in hind sight, seems like little more than puberty-induced hormonal shifts gone awry. There was no triggering event, but there was a deep and inescapable sadness which I doubt I would have gotten out if it weren't for the help of medication which aided in balancing out the chemicals in my brain, allowing me to work through the otherwise very average teen-age stuff I was dealing with.

A lot of people experience chemical depression. A lot of people experience depression as the result of an event or a series of events which leaves them wounded and struggling to heal themselves. It is true that suicide isn't the answer to those things, that suicide leaves a permanent mark on the people around you, that it isn't something which sets you free and that some of the ways in which people have portrayed the suicide of Robin Williams may be damaging or misleading. Nonetheless, it is still incredibly ignorant and equally as damaging to so readily dismiss the vast and varying complexities of depression by trying to put it into a framework of dark vs. light, simplifying it to a spiritual battle akin to Heaven vs. Hell. Claiming that looking at depression in this light reveals greater complexity only serves to obscure the degree to which depression and the people who are losing their battle with it have been belittled and dismissed. Rather than revealing the complexities or diving deep to understand them, this tactic disregards the complexities of the issue.

The claim of complexity in Walsh’s argument seeks to hide the misleading over-simplification of the issue – something which perpetuates misunderstandings and falsehoods, carrying on a long tradition of misunderstanding and misrepresenting mental illness in a way which leads to individuals and society as a whole to being unable to adequately talk about or address mental illness. I am done with that misrepresentation, and I am incredibly over the damage it has done. If we’re going to prevent more tragedies like this one from unfolding at such alarming rates in the future, we have to be able to seriously talk about mental illness without perpetuating falsehoods and stigmas. We have to be able to delve deep into the actual causes of all mental illnesses, educate ourselves and each other, and work toward better, more accessible mental health care (and this includes removing the stigma that can be and often is attached to those who can access mental health care and do seek help). We need to stop talking about diseases such as depression as though they are solely a spiritual battle between light and dark, and talk about it like a real world issue everyday people are dealing with. We need to talk realistically about how we can help people instead of chalking it up to their willingness to find and achieve joy, because things are never that simple.

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