Let Robin Williams memorials bring relief from suffering

How fitting a legacy that would be for a genius at comic relief.

This is the third time in recent weeks that I’ve been startled by a confrontation with depression, mental illness, or emotional distress that wrought  havoc or brought death before such suffering could be successfully treated. And those were only three high profile cases that are emblematic of countless others, especially people on the margins of society with no one particularly paying attention to them.

With no other thread than that, here are my encounters, and each one had impact.

The July 7th issue of ESPN magazine featured an article titled ‘The Pursuit of Radical Acceptance.’ It was about Chicago Bears’ Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and his struggle with ‘borderline personality disorder’, a mental health condition so little understood or talked about that Marshall made it his mission to “make an off-limits subject commonplace.”

He’s reaching out to players who might need help, teaming with mental health organizations through his charity and raising awareness and cash for early-detection programs.

“Where we are now is where the HIV community was 25 years ago,” he says. “We can raise all the money in the world, but people might not go get help. They’re still going to see it as a taboo topic. So it’s important for us to get the conversation started.”

Mental health issues can’t be taboo. They still are though, which is why so much of the population, including high profile celebrities, suffer in silence or within a small circle of closest family and friends. This must change.

Over the years, I recall several cases of prominent professionals whose grown children had ended their own lives, and couldn’t imagine the dreadful horror of such an experience nor how one could live through it. Once you’re a parent, you just know that’s the worse thing that could happen. And it happens to anyone, even the unlikeliest of people and families.

Like beloved Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, American’s Pastor as many people see him, who couldn’t save the life of his own son. I encountered that story again over the weekend in a poignant interview with Raymond Arroyo in ‘The World Over’ on the EWTN network. It covered Pastor Warren’s initiative, ‘A Gathering On Mental Health and the Church’, and the tragic event that inspired him to focus on the issue of mental health, the death of his own son. It’s heart wrenching beyond words to see these parents go out publicly trying to save others from such unspeakable tragedy.

But the hope of saving them is greater if they can be reached, and going back to Brandon Marshall’s point of his mission, mental health is still a taboo subject, so people won’t talk about it the way they will about any range of other health issues for which there’s a support community and charitable organizations championing the cause. Again, that must change.

Now, for the third time in as many weeks, the tragedy of mental despair unresolved and maybe largely unaddressed has hit us all, like a sucker punch that knocked the wind out of everyone. New media preempted coverage of the crisis in Iraq, the Israel-Hamas war, the brink of war between Russia and Ukraine, and other major breaking and developing news stories, for blanket coverage of the suicide of Robin Williams. How terribly tragic.

The articles and television videos and remembrances are so vast, let them celebrate this one man’s life and life’s work that elevated the hearts and minds and spirits of countless people while his own were sinking into darkness. Here are only a couple I’d like to point out.

Friend Elizabeth Scalia posted this on the ‘Murderous Mendacity of Depression.”

Depression is a hissing false witness. It lies and tells someone there is no hope; it lies and declares, “you’re a fraud”; it lies when it warns you to hide your feelings, because people won’t love you if they know how terrified and alone and desperate you feel; it lies and sneers that you’re weak — that you can just snap out of it, anytime, if you really want to; it croons the lie that love is not real, and hope is for suckers; it whispers the most insidious of lies: that your pain will never ebb, cannot be transcended, and has no value at all.

After a while, the pain begins to feel like all you are and all there is: a worthless, pointless void. And when your life becomes just pain-without-end, suffering-without-meaning, tomorrow seems like less a promise than a prison.

When depression wins, it is such a damned tragedy, no matter whether it has carried off a big rich somebody, or an ordinary nobody, because it is the victory of an incessant liar.

Biblically, that refers to ‘the Accuser, who stands night and day accusing incessantly until you hear and start believing that voice, which is the voice of a liar. Who doesn’t hear that voice? But who has moral and mental and spiritual support behind them and who doesn’t? That’s so key to making this a subject and condition to talk about in the mainstream public discussion of health.

My friend Kathryn Lopez posted this poignant piece on her blog, refreshingly innocent and yet deeply knowing about the human condition.

What if every person of faith who ever laughed at a Robin Williams joke, prayed for him? And every day it happened? Could this be a new way for us to live?

On Sunday night I turned on Dead Poets Society, the 1989 movie where Robin Williams, teaching his students poetry, famously encourages them to give a nod to Walt Whitman and go ahead and address him as “O Captain, my Captain.”

I remember watching Dead Poets Society when it first came out and being so taken with the pain of a young man who lost all hope.

Young men, we pray, grow up to be men. And even then … the burdens of pain may grow, despite success.

God help them, God heal them from the pain of what they believe about themselves.

We see talent, they can’t see past fear.

Sunday night, I had turned on the TV to see if anyone was doing anything different given the Christian extermination — and then-some — in Iraq. Not really. So after a quick journey into the center of the Teen Choice Awards, I stopped inside a classroom with Robin Williams, a movie I hadn’t seen in years. The daughter of teachers -– and a schoolgirl who quite liked being a student — I remembered how grateful I was a teacher was portrayed in a good light.

I didn’t watch much of Dead Poets Society Sunday night but I felt prompted to pray for Robin Williams Sunday night. Perhaps simply in thanksgiving. Perhaps because we are — all the baptized — are the body of Christ, and I was called to hear a cry for help from a brother.

Perhaps because he needed prayers and God wanted me receptive to this, interceding for his pain. God looks out for His Creation and relies on His adopted sons and daughters to do the work of His graces, living sacramental lives as the Body of Christ.

I only prayed briefly for him.

What a world it might be if, every time someone made us laugh or otherwise entertained or informed us, we prayed for him? What if we always prayed in thanksgiving and with the knowledge that we don’t know what lies beneath? Anyone who followed Williams’ career knew he had his struggles. We often don’t know. But it’s so often there — no matter how clever or talented. We’re only human.

We must pray. And be alert — looking and listening for opportunities and promptings. Our lives must be ones of prayer and we must set aside time and plead with God on behalf of those who suffer most. In front of us and a world away.

To say “we must pray” is so counter-cultural, and yet Kathryn Lopez is an editor-at-large of a national secular news organization out of DC and New York who regularly blends the secular and the sacred, faith and life, God and man, applying eternal truths to cultural relativism. She does it so well.

One of the Patheos bloggers posted an interesting piece on the saints who suffered from depression.

With this topic very much in the news today, it seems a good time to remember that even the holiest of people have suffered from periods of despair.

It’s a comfort of sorts, a relief for those willing to engage it, and a resource for hope.

Pray if you will or don’t if you won’t. Kathryn Lopez and Deadon Kandra  just make a suggestion and a very good one for those who see the merit and the power of prayer. God only knows what a difference it may have made for Robin Williams.

And all the other individuals out there whose names we don’t know who are suffering as he did. God willing, it may save their lives.

In the aftermath of horror

Here we are again. Collectively crying and praying and consoling and grieving after another massacre, and this one in a school with innocent little children brutally slaughtered. When will this end? How can we change things enough to bring this to an end? Or can we?

We couldn’t even keep the post-9/11 goodwill going, which brought the people of this nation to our knees and back to church and made politicians drop their partisan bickering because we’re all Americans and we had just been attacked like never before. After the Tucson shootings politicians and media elites, worried about increasingly heated rhetoric, called for greater civility in the way we talk with and deal with each other, and that lasted a few days. We’ve suffered through Columbine, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, the Amish community attack for crying out loud, the Colorado movie theater massacre followed by the Wisconsin church shootings, last week’s shopping mall shooting spree followed quickly by the Sandy Hook elementary school murders.

This is mind-numbing. We always say that. We always call these things ‘horrific’, because we’ve run out of superlatives to speak for the unspeakable, the horror beyond all telling. And yet it’s getting so commonplace we’re terrified that it could be just around the corner or right through the door for us. Who knows?

No one. We can never know. So we look for answers. Even people of faith are shaken, badly enough that some are asking the oft-asked question ‘Where was God?’ How can there be a God if this evil is allowed to happen?

Some are demanding new gun control laws. Some are crying out to eliminate the filth from the easily accessible entertainment culture. And some are raising questions about mental health issues in this country.

These are questions that apply beyond this country. They call for discussion and very public attention to each one. So, here’s a roundup.

On the presence of evil in the world. Fr. Robert Barron addresses this again and again.

On violence in the entertainment culture.

On our coarsened culture in general in this good column. Written by a USA Today sports writer.

Much of the discussion in response to all the dead kindergartners in Newtown, Conn., will focus on guns, and rightfully so. If little girls gunned down at their desks don’t force the issue, what will?

But it is so much more. What is it about us, that so many pull triggers? This was the act of a disturbed man, but why so many acts, and why so many killers? No new gun control law can answer that.

The psychologists will eventually tell us their theories about this individual and why he picked up weapons one morning and decided to shoot 5-year-olds. If only it was as simple as one madman. Only as infrequent as one grim Friday.

But it’s not. You wonder if we have created too fertile a breeding ground for violence. You wonder why the predominant emotion among so many of us so often is rage.

And then you look around, and the way we communicate with one another.

Yes. Exactly. That is violence, and it’s done freely and seemingly without limits every day in public discourse, if it can be called that. Yes, it’s the way we communicate with one another, dehumanizing the ‘Other’ because they’re not like us, or they disagree with us on big things that are very important to us.

You look at our talk shows that once fostered thoughtful discussion and meaningful debate. Now they value one word only. Attack. Attack. Attack. The more vicious the better, because it sells.

You look at our Internet, and its vast promise of an interchange of ideas. And then see how that promise has been perverted, to where assault is made all the easier by anonymity, and even the media no longer has use for beauty or perspective, because scandal and conflict and heated rhetoric get so many more computer hits…

If rage and rancor are so much a part of our daily lives, it should not be a shock that gunfire breaks out. It has happened so often, that now when the first reports come, we ask the same questions, dulled as we are by mayhem.

About the rage and rancor, and being desensitized to mayhem, we have to get sensitive to something else critically important to the welfare of humans and human dignity and the common good in society. We have to deal with mental illness.

This mother’s story heart-wrenchingly exposes that overlooked and undertreated (and often terribly mistreated) sickness, of the person and the family and the state. Read it. Read it all.

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan — they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me.

That conflict ended with three burly police officers and a paramedic wrestling my son onto a gurney for an expensive ambulance ride to the local emergency room. The mental hospital didn’t have any beds that day, and Michael calmed down nicely in the ER, so they sent us home with a prescription for Zyprexa and a follow-up visit with a local pediatric psychiatrist.

We still don’t know what’s wrong with Michael.

How heartbreaking is this.

His IQ is off the charts. When he’s in a good mood, he will gladly bend your ear on subjects ranging from Greek mythology to the differences between Einsteinian and Newtonian physics to Doctor Who. He’s in a good mood most of the time. But when he’s not, watch out. And it’s impossible to predict what will set him off.

How common is her story?

This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.”

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people.

This is terrible. Unacceptably horrible for human beings who need help, but only get funneled into a damaging system that will make them worse and dehumanize them.

No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”

I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal.

God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

Among all other such cries going up echoing this plea, the Pope made his petition, for peacemakers, echoing his predecessor.

You, with your prayer and with the testimony of goodness, can offer a daily contribution to the cause of the pacification of hearts and the establishment of peace among men. I have come to tell you that the Pope relies on your hidden but effective contribution: ask God for the gift of peace to hearts, to families, and to peoples. Beloved ones! In the face of the tragedies of men, prayers may seem ineffective and vain, but they always open new glimpses of hope, especially when they are enhanced by the pain that is transformed into love.

Those who will, need to step up this “hidden but effective contribution.”

At the tail end of a television news interview with a law enforcement expert, he added: ‘as bad as this is, someone, somewhere is sitting out there planning something bigger than this.’ Yes, it’s a dangerous world.

Sunday evening, a deeply moving interfaith prayer service was held in Newtown, Connecticut, where – as the chief of the state police put it in a press conference – evil visited. This time, please God, may the desire for change persist and prevail.

What the media aren’t covering

We know most details from the tragedy in Tucson and we’re still trying to get a grip on the terrible eruption of that violence. But here’s the bad news we aren’t hearing…

We’re failing miserably at identifying and treating mental health problems in this country, especially serious ones. That’s been at the epicenter of numerous violent outbursts, and still things don’t change. In fact, they seem worse.

The shooting was last Saturday. On radio Monday, a woman called in and shared her desperate plea for ideas, resources, any help she could get for her own son who exhibits many disturbing similarities to the Tucson shooter. She was despondent that since he’s over 18, parents have no rights to health records, treatment options, medications, or any say over any form of help they want to give their son.

On radio again Wednesday, another woman called in from a different state and though a different voice, the words were virtually the same. Her son needs help, and she was desperately searching for any possible action she could take to find it. In both cases, these young men are angry, hostile, rebellious, and possibly dangerous, their own mothers admit. They use or have used drugs, acted aggressively and have turned against their own families. It’s a sickening worry.

Both mothers have been reading and watching news stories out of Arizona hoping that someone might point to that part of the story and provide expert analysis on mental illness and advice or resources for people who see or have the warning signals. But they had seen none, and they hoped we could suggest something. Meanwhile, they said the best thing they knew to do was pray unceasingly…

Good, that can’t be emphasized enough. Fr. Donald Calloway’s book No Turning Back is a stunning witness to the power of storming heaven.

But as for mental health resources, laws and options…..we have a big problem and need urgent changes to whatever we’re doing now, because it’s not working very well.

I had already saved one lone news commentary on this over last weekend for followup, and another one mid-week touched on it, too.

Dr. Keith Ablow, a respected expert in the field, wrote this jolting piece about the tragedy behind the tragedy. 

The story of alleged gunman Jared Loughner’s murderous rampage, which took the lives of six innocent victims and critically wounded Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, will ultimately prove to be a story about how severe mental illness—including that linked to violence—routinely goes untreated.

By all accounts, Loughner was psychiatrically ill long before he shot anyone…

Dr. Ablow gives a stark and specific account of what should have happened in the case of a young man who was demonstrably and seriously disturbed.

No, I would bet almost none of that happened, despite repeated and consistent evidence that would suggest Loughner may have been psychotic and having violent thoughts connected to his mental disorder. If that sounds a lot like the story of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute shooter who killed 32 people, that’s because it is.

Already by the day after the shooting, Ablow was predicting that such murderous rage would not prove to be the result of polarized politics or the availability of firearms.

His violence will be understood as a result of a severe, untreated or undertreated mental illness — the kind that afflicts millions of young people in this country.

And if all this isn’t bad enough at this point, it gets worse…

As a forensic psychiatrist who also has run community mental health centers, hospitals and clinics, I can tell you for sure, without any question, that the mental health care delivery system in this country is shoddy and shattered and without any hope at present of dealing effectively with sick individuals like Jared Loughner. There are slim resources and no strategy, whatsoever.

That’s the very, very worrisome story behind this tragedy.

It’s one NRO editors noted also.

Indeed, if the ghastly events in Arizona are to prompt a “national conversation” about anything, let it be a conversation about the mentally ill, and about how we treat those who reject the treatment they desperately need.

For everyone’s sake, please God, let that begin not a moment later than now.