Suicide of a Loved One: Sometimes the Illness Wins

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death.  It is emotionally devastating for those left behind.  It is commonly associated with depression, panic attacks, drug or alcohol abuse, and the consequence of traumatic brain injury, as we have seen in our work with retired NFL players.

As you have likely read, Matthew, the son of my friends Pastor Rick and Kay Warren, took his life after a long battle with mental illness.  I am heartbroken for them and the Saddleback Church family.  Over the last 3 years, my friends Mehmet Oz, Mark Hyman and I helped to design and implement a large health program for the church, and I have come to love Rick and Kay.  I know they did everything possible to help Matthew.  But having been a psychiatrist for the past 30 years, it is clear, just like in cardiology or oncology, sometimes the illness wins.  Depression is a devastating illness and the emotional pain and despair is just as real, and may in fact be worse, than chronic pain from an amputation or injury.

In Kay Warren’s book, Choose Joy, she wrote “Right now I am searching for the blessing in the mess of mental illness as I pray for a loved one. Trusting in God has not yet resulted in healing and once again I find myself up against the Red Sea – hemmed in from behind by a cruel enemy I cannot control…”. A new friend, Becky Johnson, articulately sums up the potential of the power each of us has to bring joy into the lives of others as we transform from women of sorrow to women of joy:

‘I recently came across a photo my husband took of Crater Lake , which is the purest, bluest blue lake in the United States, I recall the otherworldly quiet around it. When I visualize the word peace this is the picture that comes to mind now.  ‘This lake was formed by a volcanic eruption that left a huge hole open to receive rain and snow until this gorgeous place of tranquility was formed. Isn’t this a fabulous metaphor for life? It seems that a crisis, failure, eruption (a ‘blowing up of what was before’) happens at some point to most of us, hopefully leaving us broken open, with room to be filled, slowly but surely, with fresh new rain from heaven. You are changed and if you let God have his way, you eventually become a place of depth, beauty and serenity for others.’ (Choose Joy, Kay Warrnen, pages 247, 248)

Suicide has also touched my own family and loved ones on multiple occasions, starting with my aunt, then the biological father of my adopted son, and then the father of my son-in-law.

At Amen Clinics we have seen and treated thousands of patients with depression or bipolar disorder with suicidal thoughts and plans.  We have some of the best treatment outcomes in our profession.  But sadly not everyone gets better.  Our research team has published two neuroimaging studies on patients we later learned committed suicide.  As a group, they tended to have very low activity in the front part of their brains, involved in impulse control.  Suicide is often an impulsive act to a momentary feeling of despair.  I have told my patients that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary feeling or problem.  Aggressively treating depression, and other forms of mental illness, is what we can and should do.  But when a loved one’s illness takes them from us, I believe it is most helpful to face their memory with love and compassion, just as you would do for a loved one lost to cancer.

In memory of Matthew,


  • Lucy Gratz

    Thank you so much, Dr. Amen. I think that your expression of how to handle the personal pain of living with or in losing a close family or friend suffering from mental illness was a gift also to anyone suffering personal emotional pains. Even if its not pain stemming directly from a mental illness. Even in its individual suffering in oneself. To be compassionate to yourself and others and to use that special humanness within your sadness to find ways to bring help and joy to others also suffering is how you sustain yourself through trying times. This can brings individual healing as you help others find their way too and no one needs to be alone in their life path.

  • Dosha Delozier

    I appreciated this article on the death of Warren’s son. My fother-in-law took his own life. It is something we cannot understand. We do all we can do and trust GOD to give guidance. Thanks, Danny

  • Elizabeth Lawrence

    So sorry to hear of the death of Matthew – Your stories about Rick’s church inspired some of us in our church here in NJ to start a wellness program
    Even in their struggles they have touched others
    It seems that everyone’s dying is their own journey -Your words are wonderful
    May his soul finally rest in peace
    Elizabeth Lawrence

    • Mary Hayter

      Dr. Amen. You began treating my family in your early practice in Fairfield CA in the 1990’s. I began counseling with Dr. Bill Devine after the suicide of my brother. Our family was devastated, naturally, and in helping my children through grief counseling it was discovered my son and daughter both had ADHD. You performed a spec scan on my son and daughter’s brain, helping to identify the part of the brain that was not functioning properly. They received counseling and medication. This helped us through the tough times. As young teenagers they eventually developed compensatory strategies in their lives and you helped Us as parents nurture these skills. Today they are loving,functioning adults ( my son is a UPS driver. My daughter manages an In-n-Out burger in California.) Both have held these jobs for over 12 years and are very fulfilled in their work. It’s because of you and your dedication as a doctor in researching the brain, combined with our parental love and understanding that I feel so grateful for their successes. It was a difficult time when the suicide occurred but I believe we might not have found our acceptance of the act without your care. It is true, when the disease wins ( my brother was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) you must overcome the stigma as a family and move forward. I currently manage a Barnes and Noble book store and put your books in every distraught parents hands who ask for help with their emotional needs. I sing your praises and direct my customers to your website and tell them the story of your wisdom for my family. I wanted to take a moment to thank you and congratulate you on your wonderful work. I can’t imagine your delight at helping so many people understand and keep healthy brains. Bravo and thank you again.