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David Shaffer, pioneering expert on child and teenage suicide, dies at 87

Dr. David Shaffer, a Columbia University psychiatrist who transformed the study of childhood and teenage suicide with psychological autopsies that led to pioneering prevention methods, died Oct. 15 at the Mastic Beach, N.Y., summer home of his ex-wife, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. He was 87.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Charlie Shaffer said. Dr. Shaffer spent his last years being cared for by Wintour and family members on her 42-acre estate on Long Island. “Obviously some people are not as fortunate as us,” Wintour said in an interview. “It gave us all comfort.”

Dr. Shaffer, the chief of Columbia University’s adolescent and child psychiatry division for many years, began his studies on suicide in the 1960s at Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric facility in south London. At the time, much of the medical community viewed suicide as unpredictable and random.

That didn’t make sense to Dr. Shaffer, who embarked on an investigation of 31 children who died by suicide in England and Wales between 1962 and 1968. Like a detective, he combed through coroner, social service and medical records.

He also interviewed teachers, drawing on his soothing South African accent and a curious, eccentric personality to win trust. In later studies, he interviewed parents and other family members.

Dr. Shaffer’s study in England and Wales yielded important signals showing adolescent suicides weren’t random.

Boys were most likely to die by suicide, typically after a disciplinary crisis at school. Previous suicidal behavior was seen in nearly half of the cases. Many of the children were depressed and displayed antisocial behavior, such as stealing or truancy. And there were tantalizing hints that children copied suicides, either of their peers or those they learned about other ways.

“Two [suicides] seemed to have been precipitated by fantasy models,” Dr. Shaffer wrote in the resulting paper. “One of these took place after the child had read of the suicide of a public figure, and reference was made to this event in the suicide note. The other example was of a child who was found dead lying near to an open copy of … a novel in which a teenage boy commits suicide.”

A larger follow-up study in the New York metropolitan area in 1988 confirmed Dr. Shaffer’s earlier findings and showed that adolescent suicides tended to cluster in communities with a copycat effect. His research led to screening tools and interview protocols for schools and pediatricians to identify children and adolescents who were at risk of suicide.

“A good knowledge of the mechanisms through which the decision to attempt suicide is made — and how that often recurring pattern can be interrupted, whether with the use of behavioral skills, by improving insight, or with appropriate medication — can often bring a degree of life-saving relief to this common condition,” Dr. Shaffer wrote in the psychiatry journal Focus.

With Wintour’s help — she has raised millions of dollars for psychiatric research — Dr. Shaffer co-founded the Youth Anxiety Center, now known as the Center for Youth Mental Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. The center conducts research and treats thousands of adolescents and young adults per year.

In addition to his work on suicide, Dr. Shaffer was instrumental in psychiatry for his role chairing advisory committees and task forces that devised standards in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM, the bible of mental health diagnoses.

Dr. Shaffer’s work — and life — was distinguished by a remarkable ability to connect with anyone.

“He was just incredibly curious about everything from a really granular level,” said Prudence Fisher, his longtime colleague and collaborator at Columbia. “He genuinely listened to people.”

His daughter Bee Carrozzini said her father spoke at length to anyone he met — cabdrivers, waiters, bellhops. He collected people wherever he went. One Christmas, he took the family to Libya. They also traveled to Timbuktu, Ethiopia and Iran.

“The more people the merrier,” Carrozzini said. “On vacation once, we rented a house with too many bedrooms, and he said, ‘Well, we’ll just fill them.’ Then he invited my ex-boyfriend to come while I was there with my current boyfriend. And it was all fine. He put everyone at ease. People wanted to spend time with him because they knew it would be an adventure.”

David Shaffer was born in Johannesburg on April 20, 1936. His father owned factories serving several multinational corporations, and his mother was a homemaker.

When David was 16 and at boarding school in Switzerland, his father died in a plane crash. “We’ve been speculating over the last couple of weeks if that might’ve been one of the core reasons for his interest in helping young people,” Wintour said.

Dr. Shaffer received his medical degree from University College Hospital at the University of London in 1961, then trained in pediatrics at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, followed by the Maudsley Hospital, where he began his suicide research under the direction of Michael Rutter, widely considered the father of modern child psychiatry.

Dr. Shaffer moved to New York in 1977 to work at Columbia. His 1966 marriage to Serena Millington ended in divorce in 1983. The following year, he married Wintour. Their divorce in 1999 was widely covered in New York’s tabloid newspapers.

In addition to his son Charlie and daughter Bee from his marriage to Wintour, survivors include two sons from his marriage to Millington, Joe and Sam Shaffer; and seven grandchildren.

Wintour said it wasn’t really a decision to bring her ex-husband back into her home. “It was just the only way forward,” she said.

“I like to say we have a family that should be so dysfunctional,” their daughter said, “but it’s oddly so functional.”

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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