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“Gooood morning, Vietnam” – The Need for Optimism and Belonging in the Wake of Tragedy

In the 1980s film classic, Robin Williams’ famous radio call challenged our nation’s troops to consider each new day a gift despite the tragic, even perverse, circumstances of war.  Ironically, his recent suicide provides a needed reminder to rebroadcast his call in an effort both to foster that same optimistic outlook in all who carry terrible burdens, and also to the world-at-large that seeks to counter suicide’s devastating effects.

The statistics [1] appear bleak.  Although suicide rates remain stable overall, they continue to rise among middle-aged men, such as Williams, and now rank in the top ten causes of all deaths.  Far too many people view death as an acceptable escape from their pain, suffering, shame, or anxieties. 

Although suicide has been seen as personal weakness, lack of virtue, or lack of self-control by some, it is a complicated phenomenon [2] that is driven often by complex circumstances.   As in Williams’ case, depression and substance addiction are often part of the mix.  Psychotic disorders and impulse control problems share their part of the ‘blame’ as well.  Nevertheless, some 80-90% of depressives and addicts never even consider suicide.  While each situation is unique, the discovery of important commonalities can provide increased understanding and hope.  Here, I will confine myself to addressing how optimism, treatment, prayer, and connections are all typical successful responses in combating this debilitating disease.

Seeking out the Bright Side of Life

An optimistic outlook, such as displayed by Williams’ character, inoculates against the suicidal depths of despair both for oneself and others.  In the wake of the intense pain of personal tragedy, seeing each day as a gift, finding gratitude, hope, and meaning in suffering, can have a life-saving impact.  Forgiveness, too, is a great antidote to the temptations to stay mired in unresolved anger.  Of course, the optimistic recommendation to merely “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” will not suffice for everyone.  There is power and peace, however, in gravitating towards positive relationships.  Likely the best way to do this is the practice of altruism.  In giving of ourselves to others, by friendly humor or a cheerful visit to a sick friend, we form connections and can perhaps notice anew what makes life worth living, which otherwise might go unnoticed amidst the chaos and stress.

Treatment

It is imprudent to deny the impact of brain chemistry in suicide risk and prevention.  Some studies [3] suggest the brains of those who commit suicide display neurological differences from the overall population.   Depression and other attendant circumstances such as psychotic disorders, substance addiction, and low impulse control, often decrease problem-solving and distort self-worth.  Those who, as did Williams, suffer from depression, often face loneliness [4], burdensomeness, helplessness, and hopelessness. 

For those suffering from clinical depression, the best practice is medication and psychotherapy.  Although popping a pill rarely does the entire job, suggestions by well-meaning family and friends to “get over it” are dangerous avenues for cruel or inadvertent shaming.  Instead, we must be attentive and encourage those around us to seek help if we suspect they are seriously struggling.  Though we should maximize treatment options provided by psychopharmacology, we must realize that depression is sometimes “more profound than a simple matter of disproportioned brain chemicals [5].”  That leads us to prayer.

Clinging to God

Depression-related suicide is one topic where neither the natural nor the supernatural is peripheral.  The meaning of life is brought into full focus.  Christians sometimes experience dry spells and detachment from God, but clinical depression is different.  As a clinician, I am always relieved to hear a depressed client state their adamant opposition to suicide as an option because of their faith beliefs.  While I would prefer recognition of God’s love more than a simple fear of hell, as the saying goes, “any port in a storm.”  People of faith do seem to have an edge.  In a blog post on Williams’ suicide, novelist Daniel McInerny [6] sums up nicely the Christian position:

I’m not saying that taking this supernatural outlook will cure depression, or that the depressed person should not pursue every available human means of healing.  I’m saying that only in the Cross does suffering make ultimate sense.  Only in the Cross do we find a lasting hope.  Our task as Christians is to bring this message of hope to the world, both through advocating appropriate human means of healing and by spreading the Good News that depression and other evils never have the final word.

Depression and mental illness are not a sign of personal sin but reflect the weakness all inherited [7] when Adam sinned.  God does not necessarily reward His faithful ones with a sense of well-being and good cheer.  For example, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta often recorded in her personal letters how she battled against the darkness of abandonment, and yet the Church honors her faithfulness today.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church [8] offers further hope: while it notes that suicide is objectively sinful, it also teaches that in cases of suicide from mental illness, the degree of subjective culpability, that is, one’s personal fault, may be quite low.  The Catechism reassures that God can, in a special way, provide for their saving repentance (para. 2280-83).  Clinging to God through prayer is always appropriate, and is always our duty.

The Need To Belong

Isolation runs rampant but sometimes undetected [9] in our technologically-infused pseudo-relationships.  Conquering isolation and loneliness is at the heart of being human.   The human soul longs for a deeper, more intimate sense of belonging.  Connections provide people with a haven [10] from the stress they experience in their daily lives.  One might think that, in Williams’ case, his millions of adoring fans would meet this need; however, popularity is not connection.  Williams also had family and friends, but for persons suffering depression, the brain can even distort their real support.  Still, developing healthy relationships, characterized by unconditional warmth, affirmation, and acceptance, is the best prevention. 

Although the prospect of suicide is naturally frightening, we, too, must reach out [10] to suffering family members or friends.  Giving the depressed person permission to talk and then simply listening has great value: let them decide how much they want to share.  People can recognize and appreciate when someone makes a sacrifice to reach out in genuine concern, whether communicated in a card or letter, by telephone or in person.  Avoiding any mention of the problem to shield the person is rarely helpful (though if the person redirects the conversation away, this should naturally be respected).  Practical assistance with shopping, cooking, driving, etc. can be beneficial.  As mentioned above, fostering altruism in the depressed person, offering to accompany them in some task, is another great tool for connectedness.

What Can Be Done?

Good morning, Vietnam!  Taking William’s famous greeting as a metaphor for action and perpetual hope, calls us to develop a positive outlook, to cling to God and foster knowledge of His love, to encourage appropriate seeking of professional assistance, and to nurture relationship connections in ourselves and with our families and friends.

Numerous organizations offer help for suicide prevention: the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (call 1-800-273-8255), the American Association of Suicidology [11], National Alliance on Mental Illness [12], National Catholic Partnership on Disability [13]; for family members and friends grieving for those who have committed suicide: the Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide [14](LOSS).
 

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In the 1980s film classic, Robin Williams’ famous radio call challenged our nation’s troops to consider each new day a gift despite the tragic, even perverse, circumstances of war. Ironically, his recent suicide provides a needed reminder to rebroadcast his call…
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