Why I’m a little unsettled by the blowback against Matt Walsh…

Matt WalshI straddle two subcultures in my daily interactions…one composed of kids and families impacted by mental illness and the other of persons immersed by occupation or relationship in a socially conservative subculture within evangelical Christianity. To say that thought leaders in the mental health community and the more evangelical branches of the church struggle with understanding one another’s fears and concerns would be a gigantic understatement.

The cynic in me suspects that Matt Walsh’s provocative comments about Robin Williams’ “choice” to commit suicide may at some level be a strategy to generate page views and increase the visibility of his blog in search engines. But he touches on an important issue that those of us who advocate for individuals and families impacted by mental illness within the church will have to address within any meaningful dialogue…the issue of free will.

One reason why mental health advocates and church leaders all too often end up talking at one another instead of with one another is that each group sees the other as failing to recognize and integrate an essential view of the origins of mental illness into their understanding of the problem.

The Greek philosophers wrestled with the concept of free will for hundreds of years before Paul wrote the Book of Romans. Our conceptualizations of God’s righteousness and grace are closely tied into our understanding of our freedom to make moral choices and the extent to which a just God can hold us accountable for our decisions.

shutterstock_148715915In child psychiatry, we wrestle all the time with questions from parents wondering whether their kids have the capacity  to control troublesome behaviors. In general, these questions don’t lend themselves to “all or nothing” answers. A first grader with combined type ADHD has some capacity to control their impulses to punch and kick their younger sibling, but they may have to work harder at controlling the behavior than their friend across the street without ADHD. What level of moral responsibility does a non-verbal boy with autism and a history of sexual victimization bear for fondling younger children? Or the man with bipolar disorder who spends his kid’s college fund on cocaine and hookers in the middle of a manic episode? Katie Wetherbee wrote a fabulous blog post in which she discusses whether the people who jumped out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center on September 11 were truly free to “choose” to stay in their offices given the unimaginable horror of their immediate environment.

Maybe one of the reasons the church has struggled so mightily to respond with appropriate resources, empathy and understanding to people with mental illness is that they present challenges that cut to the heart of our understandings of the nature of man and the character of God? Wrestling with our core concepts of whether we’re capable of freely choosing God (or any other actions) and the extent to which God chooses us can be very uncomfortable!

FMRIHere’s the flip side to the discussion-the part that my friends in mental health advocacy may be missing…just because we can’t point out an area labeled as the “soul” on an MRI or SPECT scan of the brain doesn’t mean that people don’t have one! My fellow scientists are profoundly uncomfortable acknowledging realities that we’re unable to measure or quantify. We’re more than just the sum of our synapses, neurotransmitters and life experiences. There’s way too much that we’re not capable of explaining about illnesses like depression through physical science and there are too many reputable counselors and pastors with far too many reports in which resolution of faith-related issues brought about recovery from mental illness. When mental health advocates fail to acknowledge and integrate moral and spiritual perspectives with an understanding of neuroscience in discussions of how the church can minister with families impacted by mental illness, they lose trust and credibility with church leaders.

Consider the parallels between this discussion and another discussion our culture wrestles with…the extent to which sexual orientation is an immutable human characteristic, and whether one’s sexual behavior represents an outcome of the exercise of free will. In each case, we have some general sense that genetic predisposition (without evidence that one gene, or set of genes are causative), environmental influences and life experiences contribute to the condition/behavior in question. We also have a multitude of reports that spiritual conversion led to relief from depression and/or suicidal thinking or a change in sexual orientation/behavior…reports that are rejected by those who argue against a “free will” component being present.

The biggest mistake I’ve ever made serving in a ministry capacity took place a few years ago when I publicly called out an ambitious young ministry leader who had carved out a platform of considerable influence for making some statements that (in my view) discouraged many churches from serving a large segment of kids with special behavioral needs. It wasn’t very gracious on my part…this leader probably hadn’t thought the statements through completely, but my lack of grace precluded any possibility of working collaboratively. We need to be “bridge builders” as opposed to bridge burners.

Matt was clearly insensitive…but he raised important issues that all Christians will need to wrestle with in terms of free will and moral responsibility. We’re all going to struggle from time to time integrating real-life quandaries with the Absolute Truth as revealed to us through Scripture. A little grace is more likely to produce constructive conversations that lead to change within the church.

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shutterstock_118324816Key Ministry has put together a resource page for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents with interest in the subject of depression and teens. Available on the resource page are…

  • Links to all the posts from our recent blog series on depression
  • Links to other outstanding blog posts on the topic from leaders in the disability ministry community
  • Links to educational resources on the web, including excellent resources from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), a parent medication guide, and excellent information from Mental Health Grace Alliance.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Depression, Inclusion, Key Ministry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why I’m a little unsettled by the blowback against Matt Walsh…

  1. Lisa Rose says:

    Steve, the point is that Matt Walsh was insensitive and arrogant. His timing stunk. He has no compassion for letting people grieve and though he made some good points which I would sort of agree with, he did it the DAY AFTER someone very famous and influential in many peoples lives died a horrible death. This death did not touch us necessarily because it was Robin Williams, it touched us all because 1. We have had family members and friends die through suicide and 2. Some of us live with that fear every day wondering if that horrible thing will be something our loved one chooses to do one day.. He is an insensitive and has no tack whatsoever. Who does that the day after a person of influence dies like that? Only someone who is all about himself.

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    • drgrcevich says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for your comments…and I’m so sorry that your family had to experience the impact of suicide firsthand.

      Was Matt insensitive? Absolutely. He said a lot of things in his post, including some things I agree with…in particular, I agree with his concern about the message being communicated by the Motion Picture Academy that suicide leads to freedom and how some vulnerable people might interpret that message. One regrettable outcome of his insensitivity is that he raises some other important issues that the Christian community needs to talk about that may not now be discussed because his apparent lack of compassion has become the issue. I’d tend to take issue with his statements about joy defeating depression, because I’m not sure that the Bible teaches that everyone’s purpose in THIS life is to experience joy and I know too many devout Christians who suffer from depression to believe that our faith necessarily protects all of us from this condition.

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      • Eh, the point – to me – is that Matt Walsh is regularly arrogant and insensitive. Not just on this topic. And I refuse to take the bait he always puts out, because this man who claims Christ write words that are anything but Christlike. Minus a couple of decent posts, his blog is toxic.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I really struggled with a lot of the comments after his post more than about his post. I think in the end, yes, the timing was not perfect, but he was not the only one that I had some concerns about. Some Hollywood media were making comments such as, “Aladdin is finally free” which set the tone that anyone who is suffering from depression can be allowed or given the choice that it is okay to kill yourself because it will set you free. That to me is very scary. Especially when his notoriety had many teen and child followers. Will they think, “Hey, he is free now, maybe I should do this to help me stop feeling this way.” Everyone has accountability here. Robin Williams, Matt Walsh, entertainment industry, the Church and society. The first thing to be resolved is to send a message that killing yourself is NOT the answer. That should be everyone’s goal. Then, we need to come to a point of finding ways to help that person, not give excuses or opinions after the fact. It’s too late. So everyone needs to be involved in the healing process of that person. As to Robin, I don’t know what his faith was like, but I wonder if his life would have changed for the better if he had a relationship with the Lord to help bring healing to his life. We will never know.

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  3. Lisa Rose says:

    Matt Walsh was wrong to do what he did in the time he did it. Everyone, not just Hollywood, says things when people die that are not true because they think that if they say something nice, it will comfort the grieving. Too bad Matt Walsh could not have thought through that and said something HOPEFUL that WAS true instead of coming across as a self righteous and arrogant blogger. Based on his comments over this one, he has probably turned a whole lot of ears deaf to what he was trying to communicate here. Too bad for him.
    And yes, suicide is NOT the answer but it does happen and we need to figure out ways to help those who struggle to live. Mental Illness is an illness that is not rational and the mind is never rational in a suicidal state. Families and friends need to step in and get that person help whether they want it or not and there are ways of doing that!!!
    As to Robins faith walk,what I do know is that he grew up around Christianity, he visited Baptist churches while on the sets of movies and he was always respectful of the Christian community and its outreach. My hope is that there was a time he understood how much God loved Him and that he asked Him to be the boss of his life. That is my prayer and IF that is so then Genie IS REALLY FREE from all the pain and suffering he has endured over the years. Becoming a Christian does not stop one from committing suicide. It can offer more hope.

    Liked by 1 person

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