Since losing my son to suicide a decade ago I have spent untold hours researching the “whys” of suicide and the “hows” of recovery for survivors. What I learned and experienced motivated me to write two books aimed at educating and comforting those who have suffered a similar loss (see author note below). The death of Robin Williams has caused so much of what I’ve learned to resurface. I want to share some material from my book for the benefit of all those who are saying, “How could someone so universally loved, wealthy, successful, with so much going for him ever do such a thing?” When someone we love dies from a disease or an accident, we remember him in relation to his life, not his death. But in the case of suicide we are all too likely to focus on the death. We may go over and over the details, trying to answer the “whys” instead of moving ahead.
I want to remember Robin Williams in relation to all the good he gave to the world instead of obsessing about how he died, and I’m sure you do too. I’m seeing much in the media that encourages me in that regard. Here are some of the facts from my book that help us understand and keep things in perspective. Until I indicate otherwise by brackets, the following text is quoted from my LDS book, “After My Son’s Suicide.” (pp. 41-44)
To any person with a brain that functions normally, suicide is totally inexplicable. We can’t imagine how anyone could do such a thing, and we may judge those who complete suicide harshly. However, we may never know how many valiant battles they may have fought and won before losing this one particular battle. It seems unfair that all the good acts should be forgotten or blotted out by his or her final act.
A friend sent a grieving father a message, sharing an analogy concerning his daughter’s suicide that is worthy of note. The father said:
My friend compared Laura’s taking of her life to someone jumping from a burning building and told me we could no more blame Laura for what she did than we could blame someone for choosing to jump in order to escape being burned to death.
. . . The blame needs to be on the illness or other mitigating factors, not on the person seeking refuge the only way they knew how.
So Many Contributing Factors
For more than a decade Mary Pleshette Willis had been in denial about her father’s suicide and had buried her feelings about it. Then she participated in a program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center called Survivors of Suicide (SOS).
In this SOS course, Mary learned that it is often the improper functioning of the brain, not the situation, that people who complete suicide have in common. Millions suffer from depression and addictions and don’t take their own lives. However, a combination of factorsphysiological, psychological, environmental, and geneticcan sometimes converge at a critical moment to push someone over the edge. The article called it a kind of a “brain attack.”
Mary said that after she received that understanding she was able to let go of her anger, quit blaming her dad for the way he died, and quit blaming herself for anything she might have done or not done. She learned that how much you can let go of determines how much you can grow.1
The basic premise of the article is that chemical imbalance and malfunction of the brain play a big part in most suicides. Some say that suicide victims die of an illness just as surely as if they had died of cancer. Every situation is different because of the myriad factors involved.
Looking at the Contributing Factors
Debbie Bake, who has experienced suicidal depression (and later became a Behavioral Health Specialist working with suicidal people and their families), has made a major contribution to my books. The Resource section at the back of both books include her thoughts on cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as the mindset of those who attempt suicide. Her clear and powerful words are sure to add to your level of understanding. She helped me understand the complexity of the issues we face when we are trying to comprehend how our loved one could do what they did. [Debbie created a chart that I included in my books and that I’m including in this article.]
Debbie’s graphic offers a clear representation of the many factors contributing to major depression. These factors are of particular interest to those of us who have lost someone to suicide because we could also call the graph, “contributing factors which may lead to suicide.” The graph is also applicable because major depression is the one thing suicide victims are most likely to have in common. Each circle is intertwined, signifying the inseparable connection between the biological, environmental, psychological and spiritual areas in one’s life.
[My son Brian had issues in every area listed in the chart and just from recent news coverage you will note that Robin Williams did also.]
Education concerning the contributing factors is helpful because we humans are so inclined to make wrong assumptions when we don’t know the facts. We are grasping for explanations and for someone or something to blame. None of us know the thinking ability, coping skills, level of spirituality, situations, or body and brain disorders of anyone else. That is why judging those who die by suicide must be left to God. He is the only one who sees the whole picture, including the intentions of the each person’s heart.
Counselor, Russ Siegenberg said:
Research shows that heredity is a clear factor in depression, so we might conclude that some people have tendencies toward depression. However, other factors such as abuse, trauma, life environment, drug use, physical illness, level of resiliency, religion, and coping skills play significant roles as well. There is some evidence that depressed people have hypofrontality (less energy in the frontal lobe) so that they are less able to think clearly and reason while in a depression, and thus less accountable.
I do think it is reasonable to say that if there were a single, clear biological cause, then medications would help more than they do. Medicine is moderately effective for 1/2 to 2/3 of depressed people, but much less so for the chronically depressed or those with bipolar disorder.
False beliefs are also a major culprit (and they, of course, come from the father of lies). I have no doubt that believing false ideas further compromises the sensitive biology of depression-prone individuals. There is no lasting depression without hopelessness. The whole subject is a very complex one.
While we are making major strides in our society, most of us are still woefully lacking in understanding, especially of mental illness (including major depression) and of addictionwhich can also be a major contributing factor to the probability of suicide. Consequently, I’m including a summary of information that has helped me understand these two factors.
1. Mental Illness
I can safely say it is a rare exception for someone in his right mind to make the choice to kill himself. Our society downplays depression as a causative factor for suicide, often choosing to blame a disappointment or failure in life. But everyone experiences hard times; it isn’t the situation, but people’s unhealthy responses and dysfunctional brains that push them over the edge. If hard times caused suicide, how many adults would be left alive?
Though statistics vary, most sources credit as high as ninety percent of suicides to severe depressiona form of mental illness that can make life a living nightmare. Yet, the majority of depressed people don’t attribute their feelings of failure to the disease; they believe it comes from their own flawed characters. Many deny they are even depressed, believing their negative and distorted thinking is reality. Most feel worthless, and don’t realize the feeling is not a fact.
I have recently seen a vivid example. A friend’s sister who died by suicide as I was finishing this book had adamantly claimed she wasn’t depressed or suicidalwhen both tendencies were clearly evident. Her relatives feared for her life for months, especially when she made out a will and began to disperse her funds. But she absolutely denied she was suicidal and refused to get help.
There are many reasons people refuse help. Seeking psychiatric help is still sorely stigmatized. Your loved one may have seen others whose careers were destroyed by the label of mental illness. Some people may lack the necessary referral they need to see a specialist. Others may not understand what is involved in therapy, or might be unwilling to undergo the process. And of course, many find themselves under-insured and lacking the necessary funds required to receive needed treatment.
The past president of the Alberta Mental Health Association recently offered another part of the explanation. She said that most people who commit suicide believe there is nothing that can help them, so why waste time, energy, money, just to get told they can’t be helped, and risk MORE helplessness and hopelessness and rejection. Especially if they have already experienced many ineffective treatments, they believe they are basically flawed in character and not “fixable.”
In reality, it is not “want of character” that threatens them but the palpable disease of depression: as real as diabetes, and ten times more deadly. To complicate things, desperation for relief from the darkness of severe depression and other mental illnesses often propels people into substance abuse, which makes the picture even darker. Any combination of mental illness and substance abuse can totally rob people of a normal ability to cope with adverse circumstances or make good choices. When suicidal thoughts enter in, such individuals have no capacity to think rationally in order to combat their suicidal thoughts because the brain is simply mal-functioning. That describes what I know of my son’s situation. [Interestingly enough, Robin Williams DID reached out for help, even as recently as rehab just a month ago, but obviously the help he received was not sufficient.]
Since normal brains trigger a survival instinct that keeps people alive in the midst of the most extreme trials, we have to remember that a person who completes suicide may have been impacted by an illness as real as any other illness. The sad thing is thateven in deathpeople suffering from mental illness are not often granted the respect and empathy given those suffering from other diseases. In the same way, suicide grievers are not given the same kind of empathy as those who have lost a loved one to a more “respectable” disease.
In the Salt Lake Tribune, June 24, 2009, Michael A. Kalm (past president of the Utah Psychiatric Association) wrote a piece called “Struggle with Mental Illness Is Also Valiant.” It is vivid and illuminating. When I read it, I thought of my son. Here are some excerpts:
Two quotes from today’s newspaper: In the Obituaries section, “died . . . after a valiant struggle with breast cancer.” And in an article on Meriwether Lewis in the Faith section, “The idea of besmirching his memory by saying he committed suicide is not a very positive image of his personality and accomplishments.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Plenty. How is it that someone dying after struggling with the dread disease of cancer is seen as “valiant,” while someone dying after struggling with the dread disease of depression is seen as having a “besmirched memory”?
It is ironic that these two quotes appeared at this time. I had just finished writing an article for the Utah Psychiatric Association . . . that includes a fantasized conversation with Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis [who suffered with mental illness that later led to an apparent suicide]. Jefferson was sending Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery on its epic journey through the Louisiana Territory. Jefferson was not only Lewis’s mentor, he acted very much as Lewis’s surrogate father.
Jefferson seemed to have a keen insight into the demons that Lewis struggled with, and in an age before psychiatric treatments, knew just how to nurture and support him, help him realize his talents and not become victim to his terrible adversity. Lewis, in turn, was fiercely loyal to Jefferson, risking his life again and again to do research that would please his mentor.
Jefferson knew of Lewis’s demons, but never equated them with who Lewis was as a person. He described Lewis, “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction . . . honest . . . of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves . . . I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.” . . .
It is time for us now, in the 21st century, to know what Jefferson knew 200 years ago: A disease, a mental illness, does not define who a person is.
A person is ultimately his hopes, his aspirations, his courage, and his actions. These should never be confused with his disease.
Lewis’s memory, far from besmirched, is shining bright, as is the memory of all who struggle valiantly against disease, physical and mental.
[We could say the same about Robin, couldn’t we?]
Hyrum Smith, speaking at a funeral for a friend who died by suicide, said:
Does the mistake Lowell made the other night blot out all of the good that this man did in his life? No! . . . Lowell was a wonderful missionary. He was a great father. He was a great man. He was dedicated to his Father in Heaven. Like many of us, he made some mistakes, one big one. It doesn’t blot out everything he was.2
When someone we love dies by way of suicide, neither the good things about them nor our capacity to love is lost. Remembering the love we have for them is good. Even praying for them in their new situation is good. Remembering can be healing, especially if we focus on the whole person, not just the problem areas.
Many who suffer from mental illness do not have the benefit of family or friends who demonstrate the kind of love and respect that Jefferson showed for Lewis. Even when there is support, self-worth inevitably takes a hit.
Mental Health worker, Debbie Bake, tells about working with patients on the psychiatric unit in the hospital. Many patients were there because of suicide attempts. She said:
It soon became my mission to help patients understand their true worth, but I wondered how I could do that in a hospital setting. After asking the Lord for His guidance it occurred to me that those with depression believe that they are their illness with its corresponding symptoms. I pondered what a depressed patient would be without their illness identity, and it gave me an idea. When I taught group one day, we discussed what was impacting their self-esteem.
I asked each person to take a piece of paper and write as quickly as they could one-word character traits they ascribed to themselves (either now or in the past, positive and negative alike). I urged them to hurry so they wouldn’t get stuck thinking only of the negative, dominate traits. Then I asked them to cross out those traits that were linked in any way to their illness. I explained that whatever was left not crossed out was a more accurate depiction of who they really are. I was thrilled to see so many faces that had previously had no expression light up. Afterwards, several patients told me it was the first time they ever thought of themselves as separate from their illness, that perhaps there was a possibility their true selves still existed.
The most important thing to remember is this: a person is not his illness. The spirit identity over-rides all other factors and will continue even after death.
The best LDS book I have read on mental illness is Valley of Sorrow: A Layman’s Guide to Understanding Mental Illness by Alexander B. Morrison, an emeritus General Authority. Elder Morrison’s daughter has suffered all her life with a mental illness that no treatment has been able to alleviatewhich had led him to in-depth study and understanding of the subject. His gospel perspectives are invaluable.
2. The Addiction Factor
A wide range of addictions often factor into the downward slide toward suicide. A good resource for understanding the addiction factor that many of our loved ones struggled with is Understanding Alcohol and Drug Addiction: An LDS Perspective.3
Addiction is simply one of the most difficult problems a person can grapple with. Often our loved ones may have struggled with multiple addictions and were so discouraged with their inability to overcome that they felt, “why keep trying?”
I know in Brian’s case, his addictions chipped away at his feelings of worth. He quit over and overbut in moments of extreme stress he kept going back to Marijuana, alcohol, and cigarettes. His feeling of failure must have increased each time he returned to a behavior he knew was hurting him. One article I read about Marijuana suggested that the initial feelings one gets from this drug might be considered the devil’s counterfeit for the spiritual peace of sitting in the celestial room in the temple. For sensitive people who so much desire peace and don’t know where to find it, the lure of that momentary feeling, coupled with the physical craving that comes with addiction, can be overpowering. Addiction is such a powerful force that those of us who have not been held captive by it cannot even imagine how difficult it is.
No wonder the adversary works so diligently to draw those who are discouraged or mentally ill into addictions. Any addiction increases the degree of difficulty and decreases the person’s ability to hear the promptings of the Spirit. Addiction takes over a person’s will and can rob one of the power to decide.
Elder Boyd K. Packer’s explanation in his article “Revelation in a Changing World,” is the best I’ve read. He said that narcotic addiction serves the design of the prince of darkness because it disrupts the channel to the holy spirit of truth.4
I honestly feel that one of the contributing factors to Brian’s death was spiritual starvation. We live in a world that is drastically short on spiritual edification. Very few movies or TV shows feed the soul. The fast pace and complicated demands of our society tend to drain rather than nurture. Technology has taken us one step further from our natural connection with nature. It takes a concerted effort to find valid spiritual food.
Brian made very sad decisions that removed him from the spiritually edifying influence of the gospel. Most damaging, he removed himself from the influence of the Holy Ghost. On the “omission” side, he withdrew from church meetings, scriptures, and prayer. On the “commission” side he chose to break every Word of Wisdom guideline as well as the moral law. As Elder Packer points out, substance abuse and addiction literally “disrupts the channel,” making it harder and harder to hear the Spirit. Yet Brian had a very keen spiritual sense and was constantly looking for answers and trying to figure out his life. He was yearning for more understanding and went to self-help workshops and read voraciouslybut nothing that drew him back to Christ.
The spirit needs daily nourishment every bit as much as the body.
When a spirit doesn’t get the spiritual food it needs, it becomes spiritually emaciated, weak, starved, just as the body would without food. In that condition one is much more vulnerable to the influence of the adversary. Depression is another factor that makes it difficult or impossible to feel the Spirit and inclines those so affected to search for comfort elsewhere. Factor into the equation a dysfunctional brain, and we can only begin to imagine the degree of difficulty under which many of our loved ones may have labored.
Factoring in Degree of Difficulty
Many find it easier to forgive their loved one for leaving this life once they begin to understand the extreme difficulty of living with a brain that does not function normally and disrupts their ability to feel and to think clearly. Addiction multiplies the difficulties because it affects the brain and decreases the ability to make rational and wise choices. Education can greatly increase our empathy for the level of difficulty our loved ones labored under. We can be reassured that the Lord factors in the level of difficulty in His judgments (much more accurately than judges of athletic events are able to do), and so should we.
In the aftermath of suicide we all have a tailor-made opportunity to suspend judgment and extend charity. Such a situation is symbolic of all of life where we have not the tiniest fraction of data to process in regard to the “whys and wherefore” of other people’s choices. May the Lord bless us to act accordingly.
1. See “My Father’s Sweater,” Reader’s Digest, Dec. 2005, pp. 61-62, 64-65.
2. Hyrum W. Smith, My Peace I Give Unto You, Covenant Communications, Amer- ican Fork, Utah, 2004. (Both audio and booklet out of print, but used copies may be available.)
3. Merlin O. Baker, Understanding Alcohol and Drug Addiction: An LDS Perspective, Cedar Fort Publishing, Springville, Utah, 2004.
4. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 14.
Author note: Do you know someone whose life has been impacted by the suicide of a loved one? The common pattern is to avoid the subject and avoid processing the grief, but there is a better way. Help them find “the peace that surpasses understanding” by pointing them to one of the following: If they are LDS, direct them to After My Son’s Suicide: An LDS Mother Finds Comfort in Christ and Faith to Go On. If they are not LDS, direct them to: Finding Hope while Grieving Suicide: Opening Your Heart to the Healing Only God Can Give. For more information go to my website: www.darlaisackson.com.