Suicidology Essays In Honor Of Edwin S.Shneidman

Edwin S. Shneidman (May 13, 1918 – May 15, 2009) was an Americanclinical psychologist, suicidologist and thanatologist. Together with Norman Farberow and Robert Litman, in 1958, he founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, where the men were instrumental in researching suicide and developing a crisis center and treatments to prevent deaths.

In 1968, Shneidman founded the American Association of Suicidology and the principal United States journal for suicide studies, Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. In 1970, he became Professor of Thanatology at the University of California, where he taught for decades. He published 20 books on suicide and its prevention.

Early life and education[edit]

Shneidman was born in York, Pennsylvania in 1918 to Russian Jewishimmigrants. His father was a merchant with a department store.[1] As a child, Shneidman attended local public schools.

He went to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for undergraduate and graduate work, earning a master's degree in psychology in 1940. His education was interrupted by World War II, and he served in the Army.[1]

Afterward, Shneidman returned to graduate school, earning a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Southern California (USC). As an intern, he studied schizophrenia, then thought to be environmentally caused, at the Veterans Administration hospital in Brentwood|.[1] He was an atheist.[2]


In the late 1940s, Shneidman became interested in the problem and mystery of suicide while working at the Veterans Hospital in Brentwood.[1] Becoming involved in trying to understand one case, he conducted much research into suicide notes and motivations. He formulated many terms to use in such study: as his researcher colleague Norman Farberow wrote of him: “He is one of the brightest, sharpest, most intellectually gifted persons I have ever known,” and later spoke of Shneidman’s ability to coin new terms, such as suicidology,[3] psychological autopsy,[4] psychache,[5] and pseudocide notes[6] (notes collected from non-suicidal subjects and compared with writings in a 1957 study).

In 1958 with Norman Farberow and Robert Litman, he founded the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center. The psychoanalyst Litman acted as executive director. At a time when suicide was little studied and discussion of it was avoided, they were pioneers. Shneidman helped them get funding for the project from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In 1966 Shneidman began working as chief of a national project at the NIH to establish suicide prevention centers, and increased their number from a few to 100 in 40 states in three years.[7][1]

In 1968 Shneidman founded the American Association of Suicidology and its bi-monthly journal, Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior. (Its current president in 2011 is Michelle Linn-Gust.)

Changes in ideas of medical care led to the end of the national project and decreases in funds for suicide prevention centers. The Los Angeles Center was combined with programs of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center.[1] More recently, treatment of people suffering depression and bipolar disorder, often associated with suicide, has depended chiefly on the biological model and psychiatric drugs.

In 1970 he became the first professor of thanatology at UCLA, where he taught until 1988.[7] He continued to write and to mentor other psychologists throughout his life.

Marriage and family[edit]

Shneidman married Jeanne, and they had four sons: David William, Jonathan Aaron, Paul Samuel, Robert James[1][7] He died at the age of 91 on May 15, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.[1]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 1973, the Edwin S. Shneidman Award was founded by the American Association of Suicidology, to honor scholars under age 40 for their contributions to the research of suicidology.
  • 1987, he received the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service.[1]
  • 2005, Marian College awarded him an honorary doctorate and established a program in thanatology named for him
  • 2007, he received the Erasing the Stigma Leadership Award from the Didi Hirsch Community Services Center.


  • Clues to Suicide (with Norman Farberow) (1957)
  • Cry for Help (with Farberow) (1961)
  • Essays in Self Destruction (1967)
  • The Psychology of Suicide: A Clinician's Guide to Evaluation and Treatment (with Farberow and Robert E. Litman) (1970)
  • Death and the College Student: A Collection of Brief Essays on Death and Suicide by Harvard Youth (1973)
  • Deaths of Man (1973), nominated for a National Book Award
  • Suicidology: Contemporary Developments (1976)
  • Voices of Death (1980)
  • Suicide Thoughts and Reflections, 1960–1980 (1981)
  • Death: Current Perspectives (1984)
  • The Definition of Suicide (1985)
  • Suicide as Psychache: A Clinical Approach to Self-Destructive Behavior (1993)
In this text, Shneidman coins the term "psychache"—intense emotional and psychological pain that eventually becomes intolerable and which cannot be abated by means that were previously successful—as the primary motivation for suicide
Shneidman investigates three suicide attempts—one was completed --Schneidman taught the word "successful" was too sanguine and therefore inappropriate to use in reference to suicide, another led to death from infection several months later, and another uncompleted—and the common features of suicidal persons. An appendix features a questionnaire completed by one of his patients, measuring her level of "psychache".
  • Lives & Deaths: Selections from the Works of Edwin S. Shneidman (1999)
  • Comprehending Suicide: Landmarks in 20th-Century Suicidology (2001)
Editor — A compilation of previously published articles on the topic of suicide, starting with Le suicide by Émile Durkheim—one of Shneidman's heroes.
  • Autopsy of a Suicidal Mind (2004)
An investigation into the suicide of "Arthur"—a doctor and lawyer who killed himself at age 33—including interviews with his family and loved ones, and responses from psychiatrists, psychologists, and sociologists.
  • with David A. Jobes, Managing Suicidal Risk: A Collaborative Approach (2006)
  • A Commonsense Book of Death: Reflections at Ninety of a Lifelong Thanatologist (2008)
An autobiographicalmemoir.


External links[edit]

  1. ^ abcdefghiThomas Curwen (May 18, 2009). "Edwin S. Shneidman dies at 91; pioneer in the field of suicide prevention". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 18, 2009. 
  2. ^"The other day Vernette said he [Shneidman] was blessed. True enough, he thought, but not quite right, not blessed. On a napkin on the TV tray he scribbled down the Greek prefix, eu, for good, and then through association and sound, fell upon doria... this would be the word for his good fortune. Eudoria... gratitude without an object, no one to credit, no one to thank. No Jesus, no Yahweh, Muhammad, Vishnu or Buddha. Because he believes life isn't contingent upon god or upon prayers. There is no heaven, no hell. Happiness lies in te here and now and the satisfaction of living a good life without religion or myth to guide you." Waiting for death, alone and unafraid, Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times, 28 February 2009 (Accessed 18 May 2009)
  3. ^Farberow, N. L. (1993). "Bereavement after suicide", in A. A. Leenaars (Ed.), Suicidology: Essays in Honor of Edwin S. Shneidman. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, Inc.
  4. ^Litman, R. E., Curphey, T. J., Shneidman, E. S., Farberow, N. L., & Tabachnick, N. D. (1963). Investigations of equivocal suicides. Journal of the American Medical Association, 184, 924, 929.
  5. ^Shneidman, E. S. (1993). Suicide As Psychache: A Clinical Approach To Self-Destructive Behavior. Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson, Inc., 258 p.
  6. ^Shneidman, E. S. & Farberow, N. L. (1957). Some comparisons between genuine and simulated suicide notes. Journal of General Psychology, 56, 251-256.
  7. ^ abcWILLIAM DICKE, "Edwin Shneidman, Authority on Suicide, Dies at 91", New York Times, May 21, 2009

They also developed the idea that most people who became acutely suicidal were in that state for a relatively brief period, and emphasized a need for active intervention.

They set up a telephone service to invite suicidal people to come in for an assessment and a referral for treatment. But, overwhelmed by the response, they had difficulty making referrals, and so they began offering treatment themselves.

Dr. Robert E. Litman, who was chief psychiatrist at the center, said Dr. Shneidman and Dr. Farberow had pioneered an approach in which trained nonprofessionals took calls from troubled people.

In an account in “The Enigma of Suicide,” by George Howe Colt, the author quotes Dr. Litman as recalling: “People were calling us and literally saying, ‘I’m just about to make a suicide attempt. Do I have to take these pills or jump off a building before I can talk to you? Or could I shortcut it and come in directly?’ ”

Staff members made house calls, escorted suicidal people to the hospital, tracked down estranged spouses and even traced telephone calls. One day, Mr. Colt wrote, a client ran out of the offices onto the roof, with staff members in hot pursuit; they grabbed her before she could jump.

Three decades after the center was founded, the suicide rate in Los Angeles had been cut in half, Dr. Litman said in an interview.

Dr. Shneidman and his colleagues devised the “psychological autopsy,” a method used to help a coroner determine whether a death had been caused by suicide or accident when the circumstances were ambiguous. Staff members would interview friends and relatives of the deceased, study diaries and other documents, and try to reconstruct the person’s state of mind.

Their best-known case was that of Marilyn Monroe, who died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1962. After learning that she had twice previously tried to commit suicide and had been deeply depressed before she finally succeeded, they called the death a “probable suicide.” The coroner’s report agreed.

Dr. Shneidman left the Los Angeles center in 1966 to become the first chief of the Center for the Study of Suicide Prevention at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., where he encouraged suicide prevention efforts in 40 states.

By March 1969, the number of suicide prevention centers in the United States had risen to 119 from 44 in July 1967, according to the American Association of Suicidology. There are now about 140 suicide prevention and crisis centers accredited by the association, and many more unaccredited ones.

Dr. Shneidman joined the U.C.L.A. faculty as professor of medical psychology in 1970 and became professor of thanatology in 1975. In addition to research and teaching, he counseled dying patients and their survivors. He retired in 1988 but continued to write and mentor researchers in his field.

Edwin Shneidman was born on May 13, 1918, in York, Pa. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at U.C.L.A. and earned a Ph.D. in psychology in 1948 at the University of Southern California.

In addition to his son David, of Seattle, he is survived by three other sons — Jon, of Fort Bragg, N.C.; Paul, of Gibbsboro, N.J.; and Robert, of Portland, Ore. — and six grandchildren. His wife of 56 years, Jeanne, died in 2001.

Among other books, Dr. Shneidman was the author of “Deaths of Man” (1973); “Voices of Death” (1980); “Definition of Suicide” (1985), which was considered a major theoretical treatment; “Suicide as Psychache” (1993); and “The Suicidal Mind” (1996). His most recent book was “A Commonsense Book of Death: Reflections at Ninety of a Lifelong Thanatologist” (2008).

“Dying is the one thing — perhaps the only thing — in life that you don’t have to do,” he once wrote. “Stick around long enough and it will be done for you.”

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