Drugs, Asking, & Depression: On (the Rest of Us) Having a Moral Compass

I am interrupting this series on freshman in their faith commitments. Yesterday, Robin Williams was discovered dead of asphyxia. Williams had a long history of depression and drug addiction. In particular, Williams used illegal drugs, such as cocaine. Williams acknowledged many years ago that the death of his friend and colleague, John Belushi, from drug addiction had awakened him to his own problems.

More recently, his struggle with depression reemerged, as did the use of illegal drugs. Although quite open about his struggles with addiction and depression, apparently his transparency about these debilitating problems did not have sufficient power to alleviate the pain of depression or keep him from (allegedly) taking his own life.

I caught part of an interview on KTLA this morning, and that viewing prompted this post. An actress made an astonishing apology for Williams’ drug abuse and alleged suicide: and I mean apology in the traditional sense of justifying his actions.

I want to err here on the side of grief: I will assume that, like so many others I’ve heard over the years, when we grieve, we say things that are totally out-of-bounds and so exceptionally offensive. Were it not for the overwhelming feelings of loss and sadness within grief, we would banish such thoughts from our heads before ever allowing them upon our tongues. Yet, I could not help but think, “Wow: Why doesn’t the journalist intervene right here? This kind of talk on TV is unacceptable.”

Although completely independent, I could not help but think of the overdose death of Phillip Seymour Hoffmann earlier this year. Hoffmann also struggled with addiction to illegal drugs; in his case, the struggle was with heroin. He was also alleged to have problems with depression.

Both Williams and Hoffmann were adored and celebrated for their astonishing acting abilities, and the range of characters that they inhabited in film, theater, and TV. They had a cadre of professionals who served them, conducted business on their behalf, and empowered their convictions regarding the arts; they both had friends and family who were aware of the troubles and maladies that each suffered from. Indeed, although only one with a lay understanding, it occurs to me that those in closest proximity also experience some social conflicts and emotional fatigue.

But, that is where I would like to draw some attention. My lack of “professional” qualifications should be enough warning to you to confirm or investigate what follows. First, I wonder about the relocation of announcement of depression. In the last 24 hours, about every other FB post or tweet made some version of the following request: “If you’re depressed, please tell someone about it.” Or: “If you’re thinking of taking your life, please stop what you are doing, and tell someone about it.”

At one level, this kind of straight talk assumes that explicit, linear, no-nonsense announcements will introduce safety, intervention, and promote healing. And, I am inclined to agree. What little I know from my friends, however, who have depression tell me: Just declaring they are depressed often takes an enormous amount of energy and courage, both of which are often in short supply. So, the above requests hold the best of intentions: but, no one should believe for a moment those announcements will solve everything. Relocating the responsibility to the one with depression is no guarantee we’ll hear anything.

For there is some dispute as to whether depression can be healed. Again, I’m not the one to consult, but if you google “depression healing”, you’ll quickly observe the astonishing range of responses; what kind of depression, and what kinds of healing are possible within any particular version of depression: and you get my point. Just making announcements can’t be the solution to alleviate pain or divert someone from making an attempt on their life.

But, we need to probe in the midst of this historical moment about culpability. Even here, we need to look and listen carefully about what we say and do. I’m always more than aghast when I learn about artists who overdose on narcotics (or die from other causes precipitated from drug abuse), especially those for whom they previously received some of the best medical and psychological treatments available. Who are the people who sell these narcotics and other illegal drugs to these artists? If by chance or serendipity, you are one of those people: Stop.Now. You are setting up your colleague for an early demise, one that is completely preventable.

But, it would be far too easy to merely point fingers at drug dealers, no? I am thinking now of those of us who know someone who has depression. Not everyone should routinely ask this question: but, at least once, checking in: “How are you doing with depression? (Listen.) May I ask you about this again in the future? Who else knows this about you? (Listen) May I have permission to tell that person I spoke with you?”

I feel some anguish here; I have had some students and colleagues over the years who suffered from depression in a variety of forms, and some hid it so well, that my surprise, in hearing from some friends, still has emotional power from the disclosure. It is easier to remain quiet and “keep to ourselves.” I am not proposing anything heroic: far from it. I know at least two or three of you reading here who routinely practice my suggestions: and have been surprised by the worst possible outcome.

Still, I want to recover my “moral compass”: just remaining silent agrees to everyone wandering along in any possible direction. Join me in asking our family and friends, especially those we know who suffer from depression: “How are you doing today?”

Last thought on asking that moves to other forms of intervention. I had a student leader who was too close to a freshman student of the opposite sex; it was the freshman’s first term in the university. She became very despondent about her academic performance, and began isolating herself. The student leader, initially offering pastoral care, learned that the freshmen was considering ending her life. She followed this announcement by telling the student leader that if she learned that he disclosed this to anyone, she would instantly take her life.

So, the student leader kept this agonizing secret for more than a month. I would run into him, or her, sometimes together, and it began to be obvious from their body posture, tone of voice, and forms of communication with me and others that something was being hidden. A private confrontation with the student leader finally yielded the energy-sapping secret.

Now: I can move over to more of my professional experience for you: In short, anyone at anytime who declares to you their intent to take their life is also announcing that they need to be made safe from suicide. They will typically follow this declaration with the threat to fulfill that intent if you disclose it to anyone. You need to swiftly–if possible discreetly–contact law enforcement and get their help. Anyone who declares their intent to end their own life has given up the right for that to be kept secret. For clergy, medical and psychological professionals, and law enforcement personnel all know this: swift intervention is needed. Which is what I did, albeit based upon what little I did know about the freshman and the disclosure by the student leader.

There’s nothing heroic about this kind of action. She’s alive today, married (to someone else), and enjoys being a mother. I’ve had to intervene on behalf of international students as well; those experiences are culturally awkward, and, much to my disappointment, have not resulted in healed relationships over the years.

So, don’t let your family or friends just wander around in their depression. I realize: We all have our limits. It’s the keeping of silence and secrets that contributes to our lack of moral compass: Ask your friends and family with depression how they are doing. Throwing some light upon all of this will contribute to the journey of life. (Jn. 12:35)

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