Teen Uses Second Chance to Help Peers Overcome Depression

‘Each person leaves an indelible mark on the world and cannot be erased,’ says Luke Maxwell, who once attempted suicide.

Luke Maxwell
Luke Maxwell (photo: Zachary Maxwell)

Sadness and hopelessness are dangerously common feelings among young people today. More than a quarter of students nationwide reported that such feelings persisted almost daily for two weeks or more and had affected their usual activities. And even worse, in the latest Centers for Disease Control report, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance: United States, 2013,” during the prior 12 months, 17% of students had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 8% had attempted it one or more times.

Luke Maxwell was among the statistics.

Miraculously, his suicide attempt failed, and, today, he is helping others in similar situations through his public speaking, website and writing.

This real-life, modern-day It’s a Wonderful Life story is already making a big difference.

Luke’s turnaround was highlighted on television stations like NBC and Fox News in Los Angeles and San Diego, where he lives, and on Catholic radio shows like Son Rise Morning Show with Brian Patrick.


Miraculous Journey

The journey, and subsequent healing, began in December 2012, in Temecula, Calif., when Luke, then 16, took the family’s van without his parents’ knowledge. Wearing no seatbelt, he deliberately crashed into an oncoming SUV at 60 mph in a suicide attempt.

Despite the wreckage, Luke was unharmed, except for a scratched arm. The other driver sustained a fractured sternum and other injuries.

Luke’s parents, Scott and Carol Maxwell, both call his survival a miracle. So does Luke.

“It was a miracle,” he said. “God had a plan for me.”

Luke was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. He had suffered with it for four years yet successfully hid it from his parents and all their family and friends — until the suicide attempt.

The district attorney was intent on throwing the book at Luke.

But Luke changed the prosecutor’s mind.

“Their hearts changed when they saw how hard Luke was working to help other teens,” Carol Maxwell said of the legal process.

Luke sorrowfully apologized to Lenny Ross, the man he hit, and Ross forgave him. In a TV interview, Ross said that when he learned of Luke’s age and intent, “my heart went out to him.”  Ross didn’t seek vindication but showed Luke compassion and said that he “wanted him to heal.” Luke and Lenny even became good friends.

Luke credits that forgiveness as a big part of his healing.

Carol Maxwell recounted another miraculous turn: “The prosecuting attorney came in at the 11th hour at his last hearing date and gave this beautiful monologue on restorative justice, how Luke was living this and how he would do more good outside of jail than inside.”


A Turn of Life

In fact, Luke set out to help teens and their families as quickly and as directly as he could.

“Slowly, as I started healing, I realized God saved my life for a reason,” he said. “It was a miracle. He had a plan for me. I was given this life and story and needed to make the most of it. It led to my video and website; from that, everything skyrocketed. I believe this is what God meant for me when he saved my life.”

His website is UCantBErased.com, a title Luke chose to say: “Each person leaves an indelible mark on the world and cannot be erased.”

With his younger brother Zach, he made a moving video of his story that has been viewed 13,000-plus times.

His invitation to address the 2014 Catholic Family Conference in California led to other public-speaking appearances. His upcoming schedule includes speaking to 700 teens at Classical Academy High School in Escondido, Calif., and the Midwest Family Conference.

For his court-required community service, Luke started a support group with Riverside County Mental Health Dept. to help others with similar problems.

It went so well he eagerly founded, with the participation of his parents, another support group for teens and parents based at St. Martha Catholic Church in Riverside County, north of San Diego.

“I focus on teens because I’m one myself, it’s my experience, and I tell them it’s important parents catch this early,” he said.


Depression and Its Effects

Diagnosing depression is often a problem with young people because many teens are able to conceal the problem from parents, family and friends, as Luke did.

At the time, he had lost his faith yet went through the motions of attending Mass and being an altar server.

“Depression is tough to tell in boys, who are not always expressive of their feelings,” Carol Maxwell explained.

“There’s a stigma. Everyone is afraid to talk about it,” she added.

Little wonder the Maxwells “were shocked, and our whole world crashed around us” when their son attempted suicide.

As she spent hours calling each of the family’s friends and acquaintances to tell them about Luke, “many shared similar goings-on with their families.” Thankfully, one young woman recognized herself in Luke’s story and got treatment.

“She was the first person to be impacted by Luke,” his mother said.

During some of Luke’s talks, there might be 200 teens, yet none ask questions openly. Only parents do. Teens talk privately after the presentation with Luke or email him later on.

“Parents want to know from Luke directly what he went through so they can understand what their teens are going through,” Scott Maxwell explained. “They ask us the ways to help their son or daughter. They know they have a ‘moody’ teenager but don’t realize this teen might have a chemical imbalance and needs help.”

Teens like Luke cannot just “snap out of it.”

“The chemical imbalance is there and real,” Scott Maxwell said. The right medication helped, and, today, Luke is medication-free.

The Maxwells note the important distinction between situational depression — a job loss or situation of being temporarily “down” — and clinical depression, which stems from a chemical imbalance in the brain.

Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine, noted in his recent commentary in the Register that the “vast majority of suicides are associated with some form of clinical depression.”

Kheriaty explained that depression “affects not just a person’s moods and emotions; it also constricts a person’s thinking and … can destroy a person’s capacity to reason clearly; it can severely impair his sound judgment, such that a person suffering in this way is liable to do things, which, when not depressed, he would never consider.”

“Fortunately, in most cases, depression is amendable to treatment,” he said.

“Those who suffer from mental-health problems should not bear this cross alone,” he added. “As Christians, we need to encounter them, to understand them and to bear their burdens with them.”


Relying on Faith

On his website, Luke has one checklist list of symptoms for teens and another for parents. He emphasized it’s essential to recognize the signs. He also posts a sample letter for teens suffering depression to give to their parents instead of a suicide note.

Luke talks about healing body, mind and soul. “Saving them from suicide, bringing them back to the Lord or to his Church and faith, is saving all three,” he said of his focus.

He talks about “praying together as a family, going to confession to experience healing that is amazing, the Mass and the sacraments,” he said. 

“I highly encourage people to take time a pray for those experiencing mental-health issues, especially those who are going through depression and have kept everything hidden.”

Scott Maxwell echoed Romans 8:28 as encouragement for families: “God can use anything for a good, as long as we’re faithful to him.”


Saving Others

June Gray’s 15-year-old son, Ron, who suffers from depression and had suicidal thoughts, was helped by Luke. (They requested pseudonyms be used.)

“I was very fortunate early on to listen to one of Luke’s talks and see his website,” Gray said. “For a family to learn to go through what Luke has gone through, and, now, he’s still working at it, offers immeasurable hope we’re going to get through Ron’s depression.”

Gray called Carol Maxwell and got support from a fellow mother.

“It takes courage to do what Luke’s doing,” Gray said. “I think Luke is saving lives.”

Kent Peters, the director of the Office of Social Ministry for the San Diego Diocese, pointed out that Luke has appeared several times on Setting Things Right, the diocesan show on Immaculate Heart Radio. An episode featuring Luke and two Catholic women who also struggled with suicide attempts “was one of the best shows we’ve ever done,” Peters said, “and it was very encouraging.”

His office is now implementing a program that will place mental-health advocates in parishes throughout the diocese. Said Peters, “Luke and Carol have been part of a mental-health working group for the diocese, helping to develop a network within parishes because of their experience and being very active Catholics. They’re in this group giving the perspective of youth and need, from the general expertise they developed.”

Luke was one of the two witness presenters at a diocesan clergy conference for 60 priests and deacons about suicide prevention; those presentations “made an impact on the clergy there,” Peters noted.

At his office’s conference for the general public, Luke and his mother were on the question-and-answer panel.

“They have helped with others to develop my entire mental-health outreach,” Peters said.


Loving Family

Luke’s parents and six brothers and sisters told him over and over through his healing and recovery that he was loved. “Whatever consequences come out of it, we’ll deal with it as a family,” his father emphasized, adding, “It’s important for people to understand there is forgiveness and love.”

Added mom Carol, “We all worked together to get Luke better. And Luke worked really hard, too.”

He continues to do so.

“What I’m doing isn’t easy,” said Luke, who celebrated his 18th birthday on Oct. 18, the feast of St. Luke. “I have to sacrifice, I have to tell people the awful thing I did, but also to save them. This has helped me to understand what it means to lay down your life for your friends.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.