The ‘asphyxiation of hope’ | Robin Williams, suicide and depression

By now, you’ve probably heard about the shocking suicide of comedian and Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams.

Shocking, but if you know anything about suicide and Williams’ personal history, not entirely a surprise. Williams had been open about his problems with alcohol and drugs. What’s more, Williams had been, according to his publicist, “battling ‘severe depression.’”

Alcohol, drugs, depression, all of these are associated with suicide. And as psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison of Johns Hopkins writes in her book, “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” the most common factor in suicide is mental illness, in particular “mood disorders” such as clinical depression and bipolar disorder.

Now, as somebody who has suffered from this myself over the years, I have to say it’s very important to be clear about what doctors mean by clinical depression. It is not being sad, even for extended periods of time. Sadness is part of the human condition. But clinical depression is a medical condition “which paralyzes all the otherwise vital forces that make us human,” leaving us with a life that is “bloodless” and “painless.”

In his book, “The Noonday Demon,” which chronicled his life with severe clinical depression, Andrew Solomon has written that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, it’s vitality.

And as Jamison tells us, the presence of mood disorders not only makes it more likely that a person will attempt suicide, but also will incline them towards more “serious” efforts in that direction—that is, efforts that exhibit more forethought and planning.

Depressed people often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs, which, according to Jamison, “more often worsen [the pain]” and “undermine the individual’s willingness to seek out and receive good clinical care.”  They also reduce inhibitions and increase risk-taking, thus reinforcing whatever tendencies toward self-destruction a person may possess.

A friend of mine told me that several time he’d seen Robin Williams attending Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City. Apparently Williams was looking for answers. Maybe he found them, and maybe he didn’t; but we serve a merciful God whose thoughts and ways are not our own.

I say this because tragic events over the past few years have reminded us that Christians are not immune to the scourge of suicide. Outstanding Christians such as Tony Dungy and Rick Warren have lost sons to suicide. As Warren and his wife, Kay, told Piers Morgan of CNN, they had talked their son Matthew off the proverbial ledge many times in his tragically-short life.

Like most of those left behind in the wake of suicide, they wondered if there was anything more they could have done, and concluded that the answer was “no.” As Warren told Morgan “If love could have kept my child alive, he’d be alive today, because he was incredibly loved.”

In the wake of Matthew Warren’s suicide, discussion about how churches deal with depression intensified. Christian leaders wrote about their own struggles with depression. And let me add my name and that of the colleague who helped me prepare this BreakPoint commentary to the list of those who struggle with depression.

If you or anyone you love suffers from depression, please get help.

Why some people ultimately succumb to what Christianity Today writer C. Michael Patton called “the asphyxiation of hope” and others don’t is something we just don’t know.

What we do know is that Christians are called to walk alongside those who suffer.

Eric Metaxas


— by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary ( that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.

Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries

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