It’s tempting to think that Robin Williams could have been lifted out of a state of despondency if only he had been able to read all the Twitter comments praising his amazing career as an actor and comedian. Yet this would not be a safe assumption. And it could lead to unnecessary guilt for those who were closest to him.
Words of affirmation and encouragement that lift the spirits of most people are strangely distant and impotent to those gripped with depression. When lost in despondency, they feel unable to shake an outlook of despair no matter what others say to them.
Robin Williams was transparent about his battle with depression and his efforts to self-medicate with alcohol. It is sad to see anyone overcome by such despondency. In the end, it appears that the man who could play so many characters so well faced his greatest challenge in the role of Robin Williams. Moving from one role to another with enviable ease and humor, he found his most uncomfortable and vexing role in being himself.
I have counseled people who feel trapped in deep sadness. They speak of a dark cloud that looms over their minds. It’s not uncommon for those who battle severe depression to give up all hope of living a life of joy and contentment. They describe a life of torment where they feel stuck in a flight pattern they can’t escape.
And the battle these people face is often compounded by a sense of guilt. They feel that they ought to be stronger and better able to deal with things. They don’t want to be a burden to others. And there are always well-intentioned people eager to remind them of how good they actually have it and of how many people face far worse circumstances.
One important question we must all ask is whether we have room in our lives for normal sadness. Do we now live in cultures that encourage unrealistic expectations of uninterrupted happiness? Are we teaching young people the truth about how tough life can be?
Standard criteria for diagnosing depressive disorder does not adequately distinguish intense normal sadness from biologically disordered sadness. Sadness is part of life for all people.
But some battle sadness at a different level and we must not risk hurting those who struggle with debilitating depression by reducing all discouragement to a matter of choice.
Help for those who struggle
Discouraged people need to hear words of encouragement and maybe even gentle admonishments. Yet some kinds of sadness have physical causes that can’t be cured by simply choosing to cheer up and see things differently.
Biologically based depression cannot be treated exactly the same way as intense normal sadness. We must come to terms with these distinctions to avoid piling more guilt and sadness to those who struggle with severe depression.
Relatively recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience have provided hope for those who suffer with depression.
I am grateful for the medicines available to assist those who struggle with depression. Those who benefit from medication must never be made to feel embarrassed about needing it. They are no different from those who take medication for deficiencies in other bodily organs. Our bodies are fearfully and wonderfully made and tragically fallen.
Those who battle prolonged and debilitating depression should consider medicinal aid. Yet medicinal aid must never be understood as the total solution to depression. We are more than bodies with physical needs. All other dimensions of life (spiritual, emotional, psychological and social) must receive thoughtful attention in our battle for health.
In the spiritual dimension, the Psalmist offered a great example of confronting despondency by speaking to himself: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:6). Part of the battle with sadness is learning how to speak truth and encouragement into your life when your mind pulls you toward a darker outlook.
See: Spiritual Depression