When Funny’s No Longer Funny

Along with most of America, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ suicide. While growing up, my favorite comedian was Steve Martin, mainly due to the influence of my brother. But for most of my adult life, I’ve maintained the opinion that the funniest man alive, maybe ever, was Robin Williams. It seemed that he could turn anything into a laugh at will. A great example of his ability to improvise on demand was when he was interviewed by James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Here’s a short clip from that interview (rated PG).

Having had a full day now to think on the events surrounding the life and death of Robin Williams, I realize that it shouldn’t be surprising to me that a man like that, a man who was almost defined by laughter, could struggle with such severe depression and sadness. He was a very funny person to be sure, and I am sure he got some pleasure out of being funny, but he was still a person. As a person, he had the same innate needs that every person has: the need to be loved and respected, the need to feel valuable and valued, the need for a sense of purpose. Add to that the chemical and electrical makeup of the brain, and you could end up with a powder keg.

I didn’t know Robin Williams personally, so I don’t know exactly what his inner struggles were, but it’s very clear he had them. And we all do, don’t we, to one degree or another? I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I’ve been depressed. I understand, though to a lesser extent, that feeling of pervasive sadness. I understand the extra effort that it takes to simply move, to stand up, to even get out of bed. When you’re depressed, life just completely sucks and, it seems, nothing is ever going to change that.

I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I know people what have been. I know people who struggle with clinical depression now. I’ve known people who, like Robin Williams, have lost their fight with clinical depression. I’ve even known Christians who have and are struggling with it. I’ve also know people, ironically people who have never had to deal with this problem, say that a Christian should never have to deal with depression. They say that all a person has to do is to turn their problems over to Jesus and all will be well. I think that’s foolish.

So, how are Christians to view this issue? I think there are a few things that we should keep in mind.

1. Depression is not to be looked upon in disgust.
We need to understand, and help the church understand, that depression is not some sort of spiritual lethargy or a sign of a faith deficiency, nor is it a sin. We need to break the stigma of depression that exists in the church today. It’s because of this stigma that a lot of people who have real struggles with depression (and other mental disorders) do not feel free to open up and reveal their struggle to others in the church. The one place that a struggling person should feel welcome and comfortable more than any other is the church of Jesus Christ.

2. Depression is not fixed with pithy statements.
When someone opens up to us about their depression, we need to keep from tossing out pious platitudes that are well-meaning, but completely unhelpful. “Just pray more.” “Have more faith.” “Doesn’t Jesus make you happy?” “Be anxious for nothing.” These knee-jerk statements can do a lot more harm than good.

We should strive to understand and sympathize as much as possible. We need to try to assure our friend that we are there for them. We need to pray for them and with them. We need to help them get help.

3. Depression is not brought under control alone.
If you are dealing with depression, please let someone know. Go to someone you trust and tell them about it. Ask that friend to help you to find a professional who is trained and licensed to deal with depression. Then, with that professional, you can decide the best course of action for you. Perhaps it’s just therapy. Medication may be needed. Whatever it is, you can get your depression under control with the right help.

4. Depression is not reserved for the unsaved.
Whether you’re depressed or not, we need to remember that there is nothing “un-christian” about depression, about seeking help, about therapy, or about needing medication to help deal with life’s issues.

I am not even close to being a counselor. I have no experience at all in dealing with clinical depression myself or in helping others with it. But I have had people very close to me suffer from severe mental illness. I have seen the hell and the damage that it causes. It’s a very serious issue and it needs to be talked about and de-stigmatized.

The Bible has a lot to say about depression.

The Psalmist says that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” in Psalm 34.
Jesus promises rest to those who come to him.
Peter assures us that, even in the midst of our troubles, God cares for us.
There are many other such assurances of God’s peace, comfort, and healing.

Be assured, however, that there are no quick fixes or easy answers in the Bible to the problem of depression, just as there are no easy answers to most of life’s struggles. We’re living in a fallen world and the effects of that fall permeate every area of life. But, if we belong to him, God does promise to be with us. With his help, and the help of those he brings into our lives, he does promise not to give more to us than He can handle.

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