The death of entertainer Robin Williams has again brought to public discussion the serious matter of suicide.
My colleague Alexander Cohen has penned a reflection that is both personal and philosophical. He asserts, correctly, that if life is a value that we must choose and embrace, death in some cases might be a valid option as well.But it is worth our trouble to reflect some more on the nature and obligations surrounding this option.
Human life is not a matter of mere survival. Rather, one lives to pursue rational values, to be happy, to flourish. An individual with a painful ailment who finds it impossible to enjoy anything in life—to read, to watch a movie on TV, to listen to music, to have a conversation with loved ones—might have valid reason for deciding that their life offers too little to continue.
But more suicides are brought on by clinical depression than by a terrible existential situation. The excruciating pain of depression is real. But the cause is something biological and chemical. The individual cannot think straight about their situation not because they choose to be irrational or have failed to take enough courses in logic, and not because they are simply lazy and choose not to exercise the will power to focus their minds. Emotions that are extremely difficult to control blind their reason. Thus, while the desire to escape the pain of depression is valid, and suicide would be a quick way out, in such cases suicide is not necessarily a rational decision.
Clearly the best outcome is for clinically depressed individuals to receive treatment, at best with the aid and support of loved ones who value those individuals, so they can go on to live and to flourish.
Depressed individuals when they are back from the brink describe the general feeling of hopelessness dragging them down—Winston Churchill described his depression as his “black dog.” They also describe a feeling of worthlessness. One might understand an individual who has committed some horrible crime coming to the full moral realization of what they did and believing that they deserve to die. But clinical depression distorts an individual’s apprehension of reality in this most crucial aspect of life: their sense of self-worth.
One can take some comfort when a person in horrible pain passes away; I’ve felt that way when loved ones suffering from cancer finally succumbed. And in the case of someone like Robin Williams, who struggled for years with depression—albeit in his case worsened by alcohol and drug abuse—we can at least say they are now free; they suffer no more.
But clearly the best outcome is for clinically depressed individuals to receive treatment, at best with the aid and support of loved ones who value those individuals, so they can go on to live and to flourish. Pharmaceuticals currently help millions. And we can hope that in the future, genetic research will allow for the elimination of the inborn propensity some individuals have toward depression.
(Photo at left: Depression distorts: LIke a carnival funhouse mirror, depression distorts our perception of our situation, our selves, our future, and our relationships.)
Speaking of loved ones, we can also ask about the obligation of depressed individuals to go on living for the sake of those who love and value them. There was no generic moral obligation for Robin Williams to continue to suffer because the millions who loved his work would miss him.
But consider the situation of a father with a wife and young children who, because of clinical depression, commits suicide. That father took on a moral and a legal commitment to care for those children. He would be inflicting terrible, long-lasting pain not only on the children but on the wife whom he loved and valued. Again, in such a case we might take cold comfort in the fact that such a father no longer suffers the pain of clinical depression. But his suicide can only be described as a tragedy, inflicting on his family undeserved pain because of a painful biological condition that drives such a father, beyond reason, to suicide.
Individuals don’t have a moral obligation to live for the sake of others. But the foundation and source of the need for morality is to guide us as we seek to live flourishing lives. Let us hope that Robin Williams’s death will raise awareness of the need for individuals who suffer from clinical depression to strive, with the help of loved ones, to overcome their condition just as they would strive to overcome any other illness. That is how life for them will continue to offer values and, indeed, will be the highest value.
Ten Habits of Hope by Marsha Enright
Practical and liberating tips from an educator with a background in psychology. Are you focused on what you cannot do or what you can do? On what you do not control or what you do control?
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.