Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Religious Right's Callous Response to Robin Williams' Suicide

Earlier this month, 63 year-old actor Robin Williams hung himself in his California home, according to CNN. Williams had struggled with depression and addiction before his death. His passing has prompted public conversations about mental illness, addiction, and suicide, which may help increase awareness and reduce stigma for those who struggle from mental health issues. Unfortunately, some figures from the Religious Right are using William's suicide to promote hateful agendas.

First, in an August 18th blog post at the Family Research Council website, Peter Sprigg used Williams' suicide as an opportunity to defend conversion therapy. Since Williams and others continued to struggle with addiction and depression after rehab, Sprigg asked liberals "why aren’t you trying to outlaw rehab?"
"Critics of reorientation therapy make two charges — that it is ineffective, and that it is harmful. But they support these charges only by holding such therapies to a standard of “effectiveness” and “safety” that is impossible for any mental health treatment to meet ... There is actually no scientific evidence that reorientation therapy is more harmful than helpful. There are, however, anecdotal accounts of people who claim they found it harmful, or who had negative experiences after such therapy, such as depression or even suicide. However, mere chronological correlation is not scientific proof of causation — any more than Robin Williams’ suicide was “caused” by his recent return to rehab."

Actually, there is evidence that conversion therapy is harmful. In a study of 202 consumers of sexual orientation conversion efforts, many respondents associated conversion therapy with harmful after-effects. In 2009, the American Psychological Association Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation concluded that sexual orientation change efforts "are unlikely to be successful and involve some risk of harm". We can safely conclude that conversion therapy is pseudoscience at best, and potentially harmful, anti-gay quackery at worst. More to the point, however, is that Sprigg used a man's suicide to take swipes at critics of the ex-gay movement, which was tasteless and callous.

Next, in an August 12th post at Priests for Life, Kevin Burke claimed that Williams' depression and addiction struggles were rooted in "post abortion trauma" stemming from a girlfriend's abortion decades ago.
"Years of using drugs and alcohol to cope with abortion loss and other emotional pain and life stress takes a toll on the emotions and nervous system of addicts. The failure to recognize the role of abortion loss can be a significant factor in one’s addictive behavior and shuts the door on reconciliation and recovery from the abortion wound."
Reducing Williams' mental health issues to anti-abortion arguments are not only simplistic, but insensitive. Writing for RH Reality Check, Amanda Marcotte argues that such thinking frames depression as a "punishment" for sin, which has devastating consequences for those who struggle with depression.
"Despite all the lip-smacking poses of concern, the fact of the matter is the anti-choice movement is wielding depression like a threat, treating depression like it’s a punishment for your “sins.” Because they can’t get the “abortion means you’re going to hell” argument past basic First Amendment concerns, they just replace the word “hell” with “depression” and presto blammo! Their religious agenda looks secular enough to pass legal scrutiny.

The problem with this, of course, is positioning depression as a punishment for one’s supposed sins just encourages people with mental illness to blame themselves for their problems, even though mental illness is usually caused by a series of complex factors that are rarely up to the person suffering. Considering that one of the major symptoms of depression is a feeling of hopelessness—which can, in some cases, lead to suicide attempts—it is beyond irresponsible to encourage people who already feel bad about themselves to feel even worse. That’s not “pro-life.” That shows such an indifference to life that it’s bordering on depraved. People suffering from depression sure as hell don’t need to be told that they have to go over their past with a fine toothed comb looking for something they did “wrong” to “deserve” this. Believe you and me, many of them are already trapped in a cycle of self-doubt and shame that usually owes more to their illness than their actual actions. People who are depressed need support and therapy, not accusations."
It gets worse. World Net Daily posted a commentary piece from Joe Schimmel at Good Fight, which claims that demons played a role in Williams' suicide. According to Schimmel, Williams "opened himself up to transformative demonic powers that aided him on stage", pointing to his scandalous stand-up comedy routines and struggles with depression and addiction as supposed evidence of demonic influence. (Hat tip to Right Wing Watch).
"Most people are blind to this diabolical pattern of celebrities giving themselves over to satanic power for fame and fortune, only to be exploited, used and abused, and then spit out after Satan is done with them ... Robin Williams, like Morrison, Winters, Ledger and so many others who resort to drugs or alcohol in their attempt to quell the demonic voices that torment them, fail to realize – until it’s too late – that such drugs only draw one deeper into Satan’s insidious web."
Finally, Pat Robertson blamed Williams' suicide on devotion to the "idols" of fame and money, implying that Williams' suicide was because of insufficient piety. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Robertson has made insensitive comments about mental illness on The 700 Club show. (Hat tip to Right Wing Watch.)
"What is your god? Is it money? ... Is it fame? ... You see these very popular people in the media who commit suicide like Robin Williams recently, and you say, 'What is the deal with him? What happened?' You find people who are at the top of the game in music and they're strung out on drugs. What happened? What was their god? You see, the gods of the heathen are idols, and everything that you seek in life can ruin you unless that something and somebody is God himself. He can fill your every need. He won't disappoint you, and you won’t want to commit suicide after you have come to him."
Robertson relies on the old, tired chestnuts that Christian piety solves all problems and that mental illness springs from insufficient piety. He ignores the fact that both the devout and non-devout can suffer from mental illness, and that faith is not a cure-all for disease.

The Religious Right's ongoing insensitivity surrounding mental health issues astounds me. Where is their respect for people who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts? Where is their sensitivity for those who have lost loved ones to suicide? Why do they refuse to acknowledge that mental illness can afflict anyone, regardless of their faith, career path, or political stance?

At times, I wonder of the Religious Right's insensitivity surrounding mental illness is an attempt to assuage their fear and confusion. Mental illness and suicide can be bewildering, not only for the sufferer but for those around them. It can be difficult to acknowledge that mental illness is not orderly or predictable, that its pain can be too intense for words, and that it can strike anyone. For Religious Right figures, it might be easier to blame the sufferer, or distract themselves with irrelevant arguments about abortion or conversation therapy, than to wrestle with difficult questions about illness and suicide.

Williams' suicide is an opportunity to have constructive conversations about mental illness and addiction. It is a call to everyone to educate themselves about mental health issues, and to offer support to those who struggle. It is NOT appropriate to blame suicide victims, spout superstitious nonsense, accuse people with mental illness of insufficient piety, to take cheap shots at reproductive rights or the LGBTQ community. Robin Williams and others who have taken their own lives deserve more respect than that.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

To read additional commentary, visit the following links.

Media Matters: Conservative Site Uses Robin Williams' Death To Sell DVDs About Celebrities Using "Demonic Powers"

TWO Care: FRC’s Peter Sprigg Callously Uses Robin Williams’ Suicide To Promote ‘Ex-Gay’ Therapy

Politicus USA: Religious Right: Robin Williams Died When Demons Exacted Their Price for His Success 

Danthropology: Pro-life group blames abortion on Robin Williams suicide

AmericaBlog: Lead GOP hate group ties Robin William’s suicide to “ex-gay” therapy


  1. Holy shit. I hadn't heard about this at all. Is there no depth to which these people won't sink?

    But my attention was especially caught by this:

    But they support these charges only by holding such therapies to a standard of “effectiveness” and “safety” that is impossible for any mental health treatment to meet

    It is an absolute lie that no mental health treatment can meet such standards. Many, many people have been pulled back from the brink of suicide by skilled counseling and competent medical intervention. I am one of them. It's outrageous for these people to put their medieval, superstitious "reorientation therapy" -- for an orientation that isn't even wrong or harmful in the first place -- in the same category as such real therapy, when there's abundant evidence that it doesn't work and causes great harm to vulnerable people.

    I wish Williams had sought help the way I did. I don't know for sure that it would have saved him, but it might have. People in the 21st century who believe in demons are too stupid to express an opinion.

    1. Infidel -- No. For some of them, there is no depth. As for the falsehoods surrounding "ex-gay" therapy versus real mental health interventions, the right has never been a stickler for truth.

      I didn't realize you had experienced such anguish in the past. I'm glad you got quality care and were pulled back from the brink.

  2. As if Pat Robertson isn't interested in fame. It is truly disturbing that these right-wingers used Williams' tragic death to promote their own agenda--an agenda that Williams was vocally opposed to.

    1. Donna -- Their callousness knows no bounds. I'm disgusted that they're using his suicide this way.

  3. I don't understand how people can buy into this bullshit and yet they do. Their self-righteous ignorance and cruelty are beyond words and certainly beyond their "savior's" teachings.

    1. Jono -- Maybe their ignorance and callousness help them maintain an illusion of safety. That is, if they can distance themselves from people with mental illness, they don't have to think about the issue, or accept that they could suffer mental illness too.


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