The death of iconic comedy star Robin Williams highlights the need for greater education, understanding and support surrounding those struggling with mental illness, say mental health advocates.
“We as Catholics first and foremost have to pray for those who suffer and bear this terrible cross, but also be understanding and do what we can to help alleviate this suffering in any way we can,” said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, which has offered compassion-based mental health recommendations for the last 35 years.
He explained that the faithful are called to bring the love of God to those who are suffering.
Williams – who was known for his roles in films such as “Good Will Hunting,” “Aladdin,” “The Dead Poets Society,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and the TV sitcom “Mork and Mindy” – died Aug. 11 in his northern California home. According to the local coroner's office, the probable cause of death was suicide by asphyxiation.
His publicist Mara Buxbaum called his death “a tragic and sudden loss,” adding that Williams “has been battling severe depression of late.” Williams had previously discussed his struggles against cocaine and alcohol addiction in the early 1980s, and in July 2014, checked himself into a rehab clinic for “continued sobriety.”
His death has prompted a discussion of suicide and mental illness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that while suicide “is contrary to love for the living God,” the existence of grave mental illness, disturbance or fear “can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.”
Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, told CNA on Aug. 12 that it is crucial for society to discuss the issue of mental illness. Williams’ death, she said, is “a great loss for all of us,” and should be an occasion to learn about the severity of depression and other mental illnesses.
“Depression is a terrible disease and it kills people,” Benton stressed, pointing out that the actor succumbed to the illness while receiving treatment and in a supportive family.
“Think of the people who don’t have the access to treatment,” she said, noting the struggles that many have in receiving adequate mental health care.
Benton also emphasized the need to decrease stigma against mental illness, saying that understanding and awareness are key for helping achieve this goal.
Mental illness is “historically something that people have been afraid of - not understanding it well, and not understanding it is an illness,” she said, explaining that “people historically have seen it as a weakness” or something preventable.
“It’s very important that we try to bring it out in the open,” she said.
Parishes can play an important role in building awareness, Benton said. Although prayer and support cannot treat the cause of the disease itself, the parish “can be there to walk with the family and to find the needed supports in the community.”
Benton also suggested looking at resources provided by the National Catholic Partnership on Disability and by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. These resources can offer information and support, as well as help in advocacy and navigating insurance issues surrounding mental health.
Dr. Greg Bottaro, a Catholic psychologist based out of New York, said that many people in modern society do not “understand that mental illness is a disease.”
“Many faithful Catholics fall into dualism by spiritualizing every invisible human ailment,” Bottaro said, warning that this attitude creates a dangerous environment for those suffering with mental illness, particularly with suicidal thoughts.
Thinking that “people need to just act more virtuously, be stronger, or go to confession to heal something like depression,” he explained, is an “over-spiritualization” of depression and suicide that neglects the incapacitating effects of the disease.
Those suffering from depression, Bottaro emphasized, “need to know it is not their job to just make better choices, unless that choice includes putting themselves into the hands of a professional – just like any other disease.”
Meanwhile, “we as Catholics must always refrain from stereotyping those with mental illness,” Poust emphasized, saying that those with mental illnesses are not inherently weak or lacking in virtue or self-control.
“Mental illness does not discriminate. People from every walk of life are impacted, and not just those who are afflicted, but their families and loved are terribly impacted,” he explained.
He added that in the case of depression, friends, family and community can reach out to those suffering to help them “understand that they are beloved, that they are loved in God’s eyes.”
“Catholics must always remind everyone that they are children of God, that they are beloved, and that they have intrinsic value just through their basic humanity,” Poust said.
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. Catholic mental illness resources can be found here: http://www.ncpd.org/ministries-programs/specific/mentalillness