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Dr. Gregory Jantz, Ph.D. Headshot

Mental Illness, Gun Control and Matthew Warren

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Last Friday, Matthew Warren took his own life. I doubt his death by self-inflicted gunshot wound would have been picked up by the national press if he wasn't the youngest son of Rick and Kay Warren. Rick Warren is the author of The Purpose Driven Life and pastor at the 20,000-member Saddleback Valley Community Church in Southern California.

The celebrity of his father pushed his death to the forefront of news over the weekend. Speaking of Matthew, Rick Warren said:

In spite of America's best doctors, meds, counselors and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair in his home, he took his life.

I thought Rick Warren got it right when he called mental illness "torture." As a therapist, I've listened to many people speak about the depths of despair and depression and the lengths they were willing to go to find some relief.

The church, in a statement, said:

Despite the best health care available, this was an illness that was never fully controlled and the emotional pain resulted in his decision to take his life.

Never fully controlled. That's not an idea we're comfortable with, and events keep jabbing at that discomfort. Mental illness, and what to do about it, has remained in the news because of recent events such as Aurora and Sandy Hook. Before that, there was Jared Loughner in Arizona. After that, there was Christopher Dorner in Southern California. And, in between, in the struggle to come to grips with mental illness in this country, there are countless families like the Warrens, where the harm done from mental illness is turned inward onto self instead of outward onto others.

The Warrens do not blame Matthew for taking his own life; they blame his mental condition. I doubt many would dispute that conclusion, partially because Matthew's violence took his own life and not the lives of others. The violence was contained; it stopped at his front door with himself alone. Not so in Arizona or Aurora or Sandy Hook.

I understand the focus on gun control in the current debate; after all, these incidents of violence involved the use of guns. However, there is another common denominator that must not be overlooked, and that is the presence of mental illness. If we take this debate and narrow it down to the mechanical questions of magazine capacity or clip size, I'm afraid any safety we feel may be just that: a feeling and not a fact.

The harder issue, the more complicated issue, is what do we do with the mentally ill in our society? Do we quietly allow them to harm themselves, as long as they don't take anyone else with them? How far are we willing to go to protect people, from others and from themselves? Are we willing to take away a person's liberty? And, if so, on what basis? Are we willing to enter into a brave new world of Minority Report, where people are incarcerated on the assumption of action instead of on action itself? Do we want to bear the burden of making mistakes by being too quick to pass judgment, or do we want to suffer the consequences of viewing these tragedies in hindsight? On the one hand, we are damned if we act too early but, on the other, we're damned if we act too late. And, in the middle, we want to be able to act correctly every time, to have control over an illness that, for some, can never be fully controlled. Are we willing to control the person because we're unable to control the condition? We already know what we want. The question is, what are we willing to accept?

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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