Matthew Warren’s Death and the Changing Tide of Mental Health Awareness

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Does the compassionate response to Matthew Warren's suicide demonstrate that the public conversation about mental illness might be changing?

Does the compassionate response to Matthew Warren's suicide demonstrate that the public conversation about mental illness might be changing?

Does the compassionate response to Matthew Warren's suicide demonstrate that the public conversation about mental illness might be changing?

Does the compassionate response to Matthew Warren’s suicide demonstrate that the public conversation about mental illness might be changing?

I was deeply saddened on Saturday to learn of the death of Rick Warren’s youngest son Matthew, age 27. After a lifetime of struggling with mental illness, Matthew Warren shot himself, devastating his family and friends.

In this tragedy, though, I’m discerning a palpable shift in how America is dealing with news of mental illness and suicide.

In past years I’ve seen parents who are already berating themselves for the suicide of a child then be forced to bear the additional stigma and judgment of others who simply did not understand the terrible misfortune that is mental illness.

And “misfortune” truly is the word I want to use here. Just as physical illness is no respecter of persons, mental illness can strike any family in any situation at any time. It is nobody’s fault.

Because there is a history of mental illness in my family, I’ve taken pains to educate myself about it and the pain it causes. There is a great deal of helplessness because of how little we can do for our loved ones who struggle with chronic depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or other difficult mental illnesses. That helplessness is only exacerbated by other people’s judgments when they don’t understand that mental illness is not something we can easily control, although it can sometimes — in lucky persons — be treated.

A couple of years ago I took an excellent NAMI class with about 20 other people who wanted to learn how to help family members suffering from mental illness. Some of the most difficult stories were of parents who were watching their adult children fall into the dark hole of depression. These parents were deeply concerned about the possibility of suicide, but limited in what they could do. Parents cannot force their adult children to take medication, see a psychiatrist, or get medical help. As I listened each week to these parents’ stories, my heart broke for them.

My heart also breaks for the Warren family, and my prayers are with them as they seek to pick up the pieces of this devastating loss. As I have followed the story, I’ve been bracing myself for evidence of ignorant trolls who blame the Warrens for their son’s death.

I haven’t seen much of that, however (despite some invasive rumormongers and the usual minority voices casting stones about the eternal fate of people who commit suicide). Instead I have seen mostly messages of compassion. Over the weekend Rev. Warren said that he was overwhelmed by loving messages, letters, and notes from people praying for their family.

It may be that our nation’s awareness of mental illness is changing. On Sunday at my church’s General conference, one of the most uplifting messages was from President Dieter Uchtdorf, whose theme was finding light in the darkness. He gave an example of a woman recovering from abuse. In her search for healing, he said, she sought medical help and counseling in addition to relying on her faith to shore her up. Such a simple thing, but I appreciated the matter-of-fact way Pres. Uchtdorf pointed to faith and professional treatment working hand-in-hand for a successful outcome.

My church is not always this open. As recently as last year, the LDS adult curriculum manual focused on the teachings of former church president George Albert Smith (1870-1951) but entirely omitted any mention of the fact that Pres. Smith suffered deeply from depression. When he was in his early forties and serving as an Apostle, he suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted around three years. During this time he was unable to work, give public addresses, or sustain the grueling travel schedule of a general authority. Despite numerous blessings from fellow apostles and an extended “rest cure,” his mental and physical symptoms continued unabated from 1909 to 1912. For five of those months, he was in bed in St. George, Utah, unable to change out of pajamas.

None of this psychiatric history was mentioned in the sanitized curriculum, despite the comfort that such knowledge could have provided to LDS members who, like President Smith, have experienced crippling depression.

For millions of people — those who suffer from mental illness and those who love them – honest acknowledgment of their struggle goes a long way toward removing the stigma and healing the pain.

This weekend, in reaching out to the Warren family without judgment or censure, our nation may have turned a corner in that effort.


Note: America’s Mental Health Awareness Week will take place on May 13-19, 2013. This is a terrific opportunity to learn more about mental illness and those who suffer from it. To that end, I highly recommend the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for its commitment to grassroots mental health education. Most of their local chapters offer classes that are free and open to the public.

The mental illness word collage is used with permission of

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  • J.M. Kincaid

    Years ago, a friend of mine — the oldest (or second-oldest. I can’t remember and it doesn’t really matter) son of a prominent university professor and psychologist in our community put a gun to his head and killed himself. At that point, I’d grown up in a church that said suicide was a sin and those who committed it were going straight to hell, no ifs, ands, or buts.

    I’ll never forget this friend’s Mormon bishop standing up as one of the last speakers at the funeral and saying, “I cannot in good conscience tell you that Grant (not his real name) has been consigned to an eternity in the telestial kingdom. The Heavenly Father I know, loves Grant and while He will surely judge Grant’s life, I cannot for a moment believe that He will base His entire judgement of all of Grant’s life on this one single moment. Grant was and is more than his tragic death.” I can’t tell you how comforting and healing that was to so many of us (whether, from a theological or cosmological standpoint, it was/is true or not hardly seems to matter. All that mattered in that moment was, it brought healing and peace for so many.)

    Many years later, I found myself in need of professional help and sought out a therapist. Unlike many Latter-day Saints, I wasn’t — and still am not — embarrassed to admit that. In fact, getting a therapist was some of the best money I ever spent and did more for me — personally, spiritually, and relationally — than any of the interviews I had with bishops, stake presidents, or my mission presidents.

    I hope more people of faith will continue to seek out help in forms more than just prayers or ecclesiastical guidance. Occasionally, all systems — secular and spiritual — fail and there are tragedies like my friend Grant and the Warren’s son. But for many of us, these tools can save lives, if we allow ourselves to engage them. I certainly know they save and continue to save mine.

    In the meantime, my heart and thoughts go out to the Warren’s.

  • eeenok

    i have no idea how the warrens handled matthew’s illness and i can’t see that anybody has a reason to point fingers in their direction or show them anything less than sympathy, but all the same this is a time to reflect on the fact there are still sizable christian communities where psychological science is essentially considered a myth, and the answer to any behavioral or mood problem is prayer, church, jesus and counseling by church officers who don’t have the appropriate skills … dosage to be increased as required




  • Shimie

    NAMI, are you kidding me, they get 75% of their funding from the profit driven pharmaceutical industry. Think about it, they are a front group for the drug pushing A.P.A. and Pharma…. Death by psych drugs… when the public finally connects the dots and realizes how they can cherry pick the studies they are submitting to the FDA to get these unpredictable medicines approved; the fallout and lawsuits will be bigger than Tobacco ever was. Psych meds don’t have side effects, they have direct effects…. stop buying the lie. Young man and his poor parents are yet another family murdered by the pharmaceutical industry and their pushers. How many psychiatrists even do real work, therapy… barely any… but they have a script pad that will issue you deadly so called “side effects”. Why do you think the black box warning is there? Science based cures need to be sought. Go back to what was suggested in the early 50’s when lithium showed up…. the endocrine system…. not chemical imbalances… it is hormonal and and imbalance in the endocrine which governs the hypothalamus…

  • Shimie



  • shimie

    You mistake me sir, the Warren family is seen to me as a victim of a profit driven industry. I too have lost to this unholy alliance between the A.P.A. and the big pharmaceutical companies. Call me a troll in a private email if you wish or publicly. I am however an activist and people need to wake up. The Warren family are victims…. they are in no way to blame for the loss of such a sensitive God created soul. I understand Matthew had the rare and extraordinary gift of empathy. He is in Christ’s very lap.

  • The death of Matthew Warren is extremely upsetting. Although it’s great to see Churches and other organizations taking strides toward a larger acceptance and awareness of mental health disorders, casualties like this highlight the fact that the journey to a full understanding has only just begun. At Families for Depression Awareness, “removing the stigma and healing the pain” is our main goal – learn more about us at

  • Shimie

    You have TeenScreen listed as a resource…. tell the truth. One study, completed by the creators of the test themselves, found an 82% false positive rate, meaning that if 100 adolescents scored in the diagnosable range, 82 of them would be flagged as having some mental illness without having any real problems. It is nothing more than a tool to stick otherwise normally teen angst kids on meds for a profit driven industry. I have watched too many people die for pharma profits and this has to stop.

  • Oh, Sam, thank you for sharing this grief. I’m sorry about your colleague. Whenever I sit in one of the services of your Episcopal denomination and the congregation asks for forgiveness for “the things we have left undone,” I always think about the good that I might have accomplished and did not. So many hurting people.

    I had a high school friend who committed suicide two and a half years ago. I hadn’t known much about the pain he was in as an adult, and I guess the friends who lived in his town didn’t either. I have wondered so much since then if there was anything I could have done, should have done. . . .

    I pray he is at peace now, and feel that he is.

  • Janet, thank you for telling that story. I’m glad the bishop said something so comforting and wise.

  • Karen

    This is a really good article written from a great perspective. Although I am not part of the LDS church, (my church is similar to Rick Warren’s) I have often for years pondered the eternity of those that commit suicide. I no longer believe that God sees this sin any different than other sins. As I was reflecting on this news, two other thoughts came to mind 1) Mental Illness is no different than other illnesses, and 2) A large portion of us die as a result of indirect suicide. By that I mean, we put garbage into our bodies that cause all kind of illnesses, we drive carelessly therefore increasing the risk of a fatal accident, and the list goes on.

    We really need to pray and change out perspectives and realize that our struggles and battles may be different, but they are equal. Thanks again for the great article and not judging Pastor Warren as so many have done.

  • MaPhili

    Matthew’s passing is very tragic & I cannot imagine the pain his family & friends are going through. May God have mercy over Matthew’s soul for he didn’t know what he was doing he was sick & suffering and may the spirit of God comfort his loved ones.

  • Colby Averbeck

    ental health describes a level of psychological well-being, or an absence of a mental disorder.From the perspective of ‘positive psychology’ or ‘holism’, mental health may include an individual’s ability to enjoy life, and create a balance between life activities and efforts to achieve psychological resilience.’:’*

    All the best <http://livinghealthybulletin.comwh