David Shaffer, Medical ‘Detective’ in Suicide of Youths, Dies at 87

David Shaffer, Medical ‘Detective’ in Suicide of Youths, Dies at 87

Dr. David Shaffer, a psychiatrist who spent decades studying children and teenagers who died by suicide, constructing a framework for screening and laying the groundwork for modern prevention efforts, died on Sunday in Mastic Beach, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 87.

His son, Dr. Charlie Shaffer, said the cause was respiratory complications of Alzheimer’s disease. For about six years, as the disease progressed, he had lived on the estate of the Vogue editor Anna Wintour, his former wife and the mother of two of his children.

In the 1970s, when Dr. Shaffer was a young doctor, most people saw the suicide of a child or adolescent as a random and unpredictable act. Trained as an epidemiologist, he undertook an investigation known as a “psychological autopsy,” gathering detailed information from adult caregivers of 31 children who had died by suicide.

The research yielded surprises. In more than a third of the cases, the suicide had occurred in the midst of what he called a “disciplinary crisis,” as the child awaited consequences. Many of the children were described, not as depressed, but as aggressive or impulsive.

And there were clusters of suicides apparently driven by contagion. Dr. Shaffer realized this when he repeatedly spotted the name of one Welsh town in coroners’ reports, a light-bulb moment that he recalled with satisfaction many years later.

“He liked the detective work,” Dr. Charlie Shaffer said. “That’s why he loved being an epidemiologist. He loved detective stories.”

That investigation, and the others that Dr. Shaffer conducted in the years that followed, have helped identify clinical, neurological and behavioral characteristics linked to suicide.

As the head of Columbia University’s vast and influential child psychiatry program, he developed clinical tools that are widely used today, such as the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children, or DISC-IV, an interview that assesses more than 30 common diagnoses.

The prevention and screening programs that he championed decades ago are now commonplace. Looking back on his career in 2004, in Focus, the American Psychiatric Association’s clinical review journal, he recalled that, in his youth, society had regarded suicide as “a reasoned choice for those facing harsh circumstances” that “defied prediction and prevention.”

The work of epidemiologists and social and cognitive psychologists had proved that most people who died by suicide had an untreated mental illness. “Once the province of the author, poet, and philosopher, suicide is now squarely in clinical territory,” Dr. Shaffer added.

Colleagues recalled him as an insatiable researcher, seeking out the families of young people who had died by suicide and trying to learn everything about them, in hopes of eventually finding ways to interrupt a chain of events that can lead to suicide.

“He was fascinated by how people behaved, and why they behaved that way,” said Prudence Fisher, a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan who often accompanied him on these visits.

The interviews often lasted four to six hours, she said, and the researchers were frequently the first people the families had spoken to about their child’s death; they “welcomed someone coming in to ask these questions,” Dr. Fisher added.

Dr. Daniel Pine, who worked under Dr. Shaffer’s supervision at Columbia for 10 years, said Dr. Shaffer was “really drawn to the tragedy of it all.”

“He was this really passionate guy, and tragedy wouldn’t make him necessarily turn away where other people might,” said Dr. Pine, the chief of the emotion and development branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. “They talk about people who run toward the danger — David was that kind of guy.”

David Shaffer was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 20, 1936, to Joyce and Isaac Shaffer. His father, an immigrant born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a wealthy businessman who oversaw factories for multinational corporations.

As a child, David was repelled by South Africa’s apartheid system, and when he left for boarding school in Switzerland as a teenager, he was drawn to left-wing causes, his son said. At one point, he was caught smuggling socialist pamphlets home to distribute to workers in his father’s factory.

That rebellion was interrupted by the death of his father in a plane crash when David was 16.

He felt at home in London, where he trained at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children and the Maudsley Hospital. He had an “English eccentricity and values to life,” Ms. Wintour said, hosting a revolving cast of houseguests and gathering large groups for elaborate meals, only to vanish as they sat down because he thought of something else he wanted to serve.

“He was supremely eccentric,” Ms. Wintour said. “He didn’t follow the traditional rules of life in any way.”

In England, he began working with Dr. Michael Rutter, who pioneered child psychiatry as a specialty. He viewed suicide as an untapped opportunity, an area where “people were not doing science, and he thought they should be and they could be,” his son said.

When he relocated to the United States, in the 1970s, American psychiatry was dominated by the psychoanalytic model, in stark contrast to his own data-driven approach. Each new research finding on suicide “reinforced his desire to sort of push back against the psychoanalysts’ grip on psychiatry at the time,” his son said.

Mr. Shaffer’s first marriage, to society caterer Serena Millington, ended in divorce in 1983. His marriage to Ms. Wintour ended in divorce in 1999.

Both marriages situated him at the edge of high-octane New York glamour not typical of academic psychiatrists. Colleagues recall that he and Ms. Wintour would buy multiple tables at galas supporting mental health causes, and that extra seats were filled with models.

He traveled widely and unpredictably. “You know, he took us to Libya for Christmas,” said his daughter, Bee Carrozzini.

In addition to her and his son Charlie, both from his marriage to Ms. Wintour, Dr. Shaffer is survived by two sons from his first marriage, Joe and Sam, and seven grandchildren.

Dr. Shaffer was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. In 2017, Ms. Wintour invited him to live full-time on her property in Mastic. “He was never good at arguing with me,” she said.

At first, they played dominoes and read together, she said, but “toward the end, it was, you know, holding his hand and eating with him, and feeding him.”

He had been living there for more than a year when his daughter was married at the house. Ms. Carrozzini recalled her friends’ wonder at the arrangement: “They turned to me and said, ‘That is the purest form of love, the way that your mom was taking care of your dad.’”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.

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Ellen Barry

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