Mental Illness Didn't Kill Rick Warren's Son. A Gun Did.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The Washington Post reports today that the death of Pastor Rick Warren's son, Matthew Warren, has "spurred discussion within church communities about how a fervent belief among evangelicals in the power of prayer and dependence on God and Jesus for healing might stifle congregants from talking about mental illness or seeking help for themselves or family members."

One of the nation's most popular and influential pastors, Warren last weekend sent an e-mail to followers announcing that his 27-year-old son had killed himself. Warren was explicit about his son's mental illness, citing Matthew's "dark holes of depression and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided."

What the grieving father has not yet mentioned was how Matthew died. Mental illness may have plagued the younger Warren, but it didn't kill him. A gun did.

The incidence of mental illness in the U.S. is roughly on par with other developed nations. The availability of guns is not.

There were more than 19,000 firearms suicides in the U.S. in 2010; guns were responsible for about half of all suicides. For Americans under 40, suicide is a leading cause of death, and the presence of a firearm in the home is a serious risk factor.

In a 2008 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers Matthew Miller and David Hemenway wrote:

"The empirical evidence linking suicide risk in the United States to the presence of firearms in the home is compelling. There are at least a dozen U.S. case-control studies in the peer-reviewed literature, all of which have found that a gun in the home is associated with an increased risk of suicide. The increase in risk is large, typically 2 to 10 times that in homes without guns, depending on the sample population (e.g., adolescents vs. older adults) and on the way in which the firearms were stored. The association between guns in the home and the risk of suicide is due entirely to a large increase in the risk of suicide by firearm that is not counterbalanced by a reduced risk of nonfirearm suicide. Moreover, the increased risk of suicide is not explained by increased psychopathologic characteristics, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts among members of gun-owning households."

One reason guns are such a high risk factor is that many suicides are impulsive. According to one study, one quarter of serious, nonfatal suicide attempts took place less than five minutes after the decision to commit suicide.

The Los Angeles Times reports today that authorities believe the younger Warren was probably not the owner of the gun that he used to kill himself. It's unclear how much planning or forethought he put into his suicide.

Rick Warren, who has sold 30 million copies of his book "The Purpose Driven Life," is using his influence to open the door to a much-needed discussion of mental illness among evangelicals. He deserves thanks as well as sympathy. Perhaps in time he can also initiate a discussion about the role of guns in suicide.

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Frank Wilkinson at