Pioneer In Study Of Suicide Dies At 91

Edwin Shneidman founded the American Association of Suicidology and the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the association, tells how Shneidman helped pioneer studies of how depression relates to suicide.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We end this segment by noting the death of someone who spent a lifetime trying to keep others from taking their own lives.

Edwin Shneidman was a pioneer in suicide prevention. Back in 1958, when the subject of suicide was heavily stigmatized, he created a suicide prevention center in Los Angeles, one of the first in the U.S.

Shneidman was a clinical psychologist, and he believed that the destructive impulse to take one's own life could be defused by a few simple questions: How may I help you? Where do you hurt?

Though he was committed to curbing suicides, he also encouraged people to be unafraid of death.

In an audio slideshow on the Los Angeles Times' Web site, Shneidman's own words proved that he practiced what he preached.

Dr. EDWIN SHNEIDMAN (Clinical Psychologist): I'm 90. I don't think I'll be 95, 94. I don't think I'll be 91. I've expressed disappointment at arriving alive at the E.R., where I sobbed really with disappointment. Oh, damn. It was the perfect time to die. And I believe enough already.

NORRIS: Edwin Shneidman died on Friday. He did reach the age of 91.

Lanny Berman joins us now. He is the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. He was also a friend of Edwin Shneidman's.

Thank you very much for being with us.

Dr. LANNY BERMAN (Executive Director, American Association of Suicidology): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: How did he come to this subject? He was the son of a man who owned a department store. How did he become a clinical psychologist and ultimately so fascinated with this topic?

Dr. BERMAN: Well, he was working with the Veterans Administration. And the director of the VA asked him for some help in writing condolence letters to two veterans who had died by suicide to their families. And Shneidman needed to understand more about suicide. There wasn't really very much written in those days.

So, what he did was go down to the coroner's office, and happenstance and serendipity intervened. He was shown a vault, literally, of hundreds, if not thousands, of suicide notes. And as a scientist, he got fascinated, and therein was a career.

NORRIS: One of the things that was interesting - we heard that in the tape - is that he encouraged people to think about death, not to run away from it. Even though he was trying to prevent people from taking their own lives, he was also trying to change the way that people looked at end-of-life issues.

Dr. BERMAN: Well, he was the consummate teacher. And one of the things I most respected about him was that he forced you to look at something that most people don't want to look but did it in a way that invited you into the topic.

Most people think, I've been a suicidologist for 40 years, and most people think this must be awfully morose and morbid and difficult. And the reality is it's fascinating. Death is seductive, and Dr. Shneidman wrote about it as akin to sex. It draws you in, it's the great unknown. It's something we had to understand better in terms of how people move toward effecting their own death when, as he would say, it's going to happen to you.

NORRIS: Dr. Shneidman was fond of saying no one has to die. It is the one thing that will be done for you. He also did not believe in God. And before we go, I thought it would be interesting to listen to one more quote.

Dr. SHNEIDMAN: There's no spirit or soul. I will be dead. Get that through your thick head. I'll be dead. And I "live," in quotation marks, in my children, in my DNA, in my books, in my reputation. It's as simple as that.

NORRIS: Get that through your thick head. Did that capture him?

Dr. BERMAN: That's Ed. And what I think is fascinating about his way of thinking that's expressed in that quote is that he understood that when our body is no longer there and our mind is no longer functioning, we exist beyond ourselves, that our reputation sustains, our impact on others sustain, and I know of very few people who had that kind of impact on most people I know.

NORRIS: Lanny Berman is an old friend of Dr. Edwin Shneidman. He's the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. Thank you very much for being with us.

Dr. BERMAN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Edwin Shneidman, he spent his career contemplating death. He passed away last Friday. He was 91 years old.

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