Essay

Robin Williams, Mental Illness, and the Church

By August 18, 2014 No Comments
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The internet has been abuzz since the death of Robin Williams with the news that a few “Christians” have announced he is now in hell.  Are you surprised by that?  Tragic news always brings the haters out, along with delighted members of the media looking for someone stupid to quote.  The theology of these pronouncements is dubious – Williams is in hell because of his use of profanity and two divorces. So much for a self-identified Episcopalian (more on that below) being saved by grace.

What is more disturbing to me is that the 90+% of Christians who are aghast at the proclamations of Williams’s eternal damnation have not created churches that are safe places for those dealing with the sorts of issues that drove Williams to take his own life.

Robin Williams struggled with mental illness. Sadly, the church of Jesus Christ is behind the culture on understanding mental illness.  The current issue of Leadership Journal carries some insightful statistics about this.  LJ surveyed 500 churches, using a definition of mental illness as: “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning” and “often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.” 

98% of respondents said they had seen mental illness in their church. 12% of the respondents said mental illness is openly discussed in their church in a healthy way. 27% said that mental illness is a behavioral problem caused by a person’s bad choices. 17% said they have asked people to leave their church because of mental illness. 44% said their church sometimes deals with mental illness by ignoring it.

Those statistics are predictable and discouraging.

Mental illness is not a spiritual shortcoming. That is not to say participation in worship, prayer, and a vibrant Christian community cannot help someone dealing with mental illness.  But the shaming and shunning of anyone struggling with mental illness by Christians is wrong.

My sense is that mental illness is not an “either or” problem but much more of a spectrum.  Who doesn’t experience anxiety or depression?  Who has appropriate and wonderful thoughts all the time? Who can stand Jesus’ upping the ante in the Sermon on the Mount when he said it isn’t just the act of adultery but lustful thoughts or the act of murder but angry thoughts that undo us? Most of us function acceptably.  Some of us barely function.  Many of us go through long periods of functioning and then slip. Mental health is like physical health – even the healthiest among us have their moments.

 I hope that the good that could come from the suicide of Robin Williams is more openness, acceptance and conversation in the church about an issue that affects every one of us.

I mentioned above that Robin Williams self-identified as an Episcopalian. In fact, he created a top ten list of reasons to be an Episcopalian.  I offer it here, both because we could all use a laugh, and also because I have to say that the mind that created this list was so much more agile and charitable and grace-filled and dare I say “Christlike” than those who condemn the man now. I remember Deb Rienstra wrote a piece a long while ago on this blog in which she talked about the hope of the resurrection meaning not just the resurrection of the body but the resurrection of the mind as well.  A resurrected mind is freed from anxiety, depression, addiction, Parkinson’s, self-defeating and punishing thoughts and all the other ways our brains betray us daily.  Here’s to the resurrection of the mind! 

Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian from Robin Williams:

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female God created them; male and female we ordain them.

7. You don’t have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color-coded.

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry – none of the guilt.

2. You don’t have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the Number One reason to be an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there’s bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

 

 

 

 

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the Executive Vice President of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

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