After Harriet Deison's Death, Questions about Grief and Depression, Suicide and Privacy

We are old obit writers at our house who scour the obituary pages by habit every morning, and, yes, we did notice the long obituary in The Dallas Morning News last week for Harriet Schoelllkopf Deison, 65, wife of the pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church. I think we both snapped to it because her middle name is a very old one in Dallas.

We are also old police reporters at our house, so we do read those stories, too, and, yes, we both picked up on the small oddness of a piece in the News that ran at about the same time saying an unnamed 65-year-old woman bought a gun and then shot herself to death on the parking lot outside the gun shop.

The oddness, from the point of view of veteran reporters, was that the gun-shop story included a reference to an investigation the police were making of the gun shop to make sure the sale itself was legal and copacetic. So that puts a little shadow on the gun shop.

A lot of times an editor might tell the reporter, "If we are going to suggest any controversy of any kind, then we have to name everybody in the deal." Maybe. Maybe not. Most newspapers don't even report suicides, which are considered to be behind the privacy wall. You only report it if there is something about the suicide that makes it public. In that event, you treat all parties equally and name everybody.

Anyway, on Friday night we had people over for dinner who are familiar with the church. They were surprised we didn't know that the lady on the gun shop parking lot was the same lady in the obit. The next morning we awoke to a column in the paper by Steve Blow connecting all the dots.

Blow, who has written often and thoughtfully about suicide, said no one who spoke during her funeral used the word suicide, but that one speaker did allude to Deison's battle with "clinical depression." Blow wrote that "Deison ultimately succumbed to her illness."

The general theme in Blow's writing in the past about suicide has been that suicide is symptomatic of illness and that the illness is made worse and takes more lives because it is cloaked by social shame. If more people talked openly about it, he suggests, there would be more treatment and less suicide.

All of which comes to mind this morning because I just read a story in The New York Times citing a study that found most teenagers who kill themselves have received treatment at some point and it didn't do them any good.

I am also thinking about his: Everybody at Deison's funeral who felt saddened by her death can now be diagnosed as suffering from a mental disorder, thanks to a recent decision by the American Psychiatric Association to drop its longstanding "bereavement exclusion" in the diagnostic manual. Used to be that the manual told mental health professionals not to diagnose people as disordered if they're really just sad. No more. Now sadness is a disorder, and the doctors can prescribe Welbutrin and other psycho-tropic drugs to make people not be sad.

A recent story in the Washington Post called the change a major boon to the pharmaceutical companies that produce those drugs. The story also reported this:

Eight of 11 members of the APA committee that spearheaded the change reported financial connections to pharmaceutical companies -- either receiving speaking fees, consultant pay, research grants or holding stock, according to the disclosures filed with the association. Six of the 11 panelists reported financial ties during the time that the committee met, and two more reported financial ties in the five years leading up to the committee assignment, according to APA records.

A key adviser to the committee -- he wrote the scientific justification for the change -- was the lead author of the 2001 study on Wellbutrin, sponsored by GlaxoWellcome, showing that its antidepressant Wellbutrin could be used to treat bereavement.

Now, wait a minute. I'm not off on a rant against Steve Blow here. Suicide is a tough one. I don't know that talking about it does any good for the suicidal person, but Blow is right about one thing: the wall of shame surrounding it is very tough on the survivors, who already have a terrible tendency to blame themselves.

People should talk to the survivors. One neighbor in the post office line who simply says "Sorry to hear about your son" can provide a welcome if momentary bath of sunlight and relief from the grinding pressure of grief and guilt. A simple expression of empathy says much more than the mere words: it says, "We don't blame you. You're O.K. people."

That's worth a lot.

But I do have a mini-rant to offer on the assumption that suicide is automatically and always a symptom of disease. What if people really do have overwhelming problems they can't overcome? And here is the really tough one: what if they just don't want to be alive anymore?

That's the one the rest of us refuse to accept, because it's too terrible. Disease and mental disorder serve as a kind of shroud to shield us from what we cannot stand to see in a deeply personal decision not to go on.

Calling it a disease, giving everybody Welbutrin, even the mourners: at what point do we have to worry about an even larger social disease in the form of a society and culture that can no longer handle grief? Isn't grief part of the deal? When did it go away? Did I miss that memo?

And, you know, what do I need to know about Harriet Deison's death? As long as it's not part of some police case against the gun shop, nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's behind the privacy wall for a reason. Let the people who knew her speak to her survivors. Let the rest of us butt out.