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,