Dr. Herbert Hendin ’46, ’59 P&S Is Pioneer in Suicide Research
By Karen Keller ’05J
Don’t try to tell Dr. Herbert Hendin ’46, ’59 P&S, one of the world’s foremost suicide experts, that it’s time to retire. The fact that he’s 85 just makes him want to work harder. Plus, he’s doing what may be his most important life work right now: helping to stem the tide of military suicides, which has spiked alarmingly in recent years. In 2009 more military members took their own lives than died in enemy combat, according to congress.org.
If the grim trend seems like an inscrutable puzzle to outsiders, to Hendin — who has studied severely depressed people from Harlem to China — veterans just represent another subculture with an explainable emotional geography. Among those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says, the ones most likely to take their lives are those who feel disturbed by what they did or didn’t do during combat — those who feel they did something morally wrong.
Yet despite decades of expertise with a subject some see as upsetting, suicide didn’t always fascinate him.
As a pre-med student, Hendin’s favorite teachers were Mark Van Doren ’21 GSAS and Otto Klineberg ’28 GSAS, a world-renowned social psychologist who taught Hendin’s abnormal psychology class. “I was fascinated by the material, and had a response to it that led him to encourage me to go on into a career in psychiatry,” Hendin recalls. (Those were the days, 1943–45, when College students studied year-round because the Navy program was on a schedule of three 16-week terms a year; Hendin started Columbia at 16 and graduated at 18.)
The topic of suicide only grabbed his curiosity when, during rotations in medical school at NYU (he also earned a certificate in psychoanalytic medicine from P&S), he met a beautiful girl in her late 20s who was rich and smart, but who wanted to kill herself. He couldn’t understand why a person with so many advantages in life would want to end it, he says.
Eager to unlock the riddle, Hendin embarked on his first major research project into suicide. A Danish psychiatrist knew Hendin was interested in the cross-cultural contexts of suicide and invited him to do research on the “Scandinavian suicide phenomenon”; the suicide rate in Sweden and Denmark was triple the rate in Norway. Hendin wound up spending several summers interviewing patients in each of the three countries to discover what made them tick.
On his way home from his final stint in the Nordic countries, in 1964, Hendin flew to New York on a separate plane from his data, just in case either plane went down. (He chuckles today that he took himself so seriously.) Once back in Manhattan, the chief of psychiatry of a Harlem hospital challenged Hendin to study a very different population: “You had a nice time with wealthy Scandinavians. Now come study African-American suicide,” he recalls her saying.
Since then, Hendin has written 10 books and hundreds of research articles that have helped mental health professionals in their work with patients at risk of suicide. He also founded two national foundations, Suicide Prevention Initiatives (SPI) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He is one of just two researchers on the topic who has worked with the World Health Organization. He spent time in rural China, for example, teaching local workers at simple triage units to recognize signs of suicidal people so they could be sent to the nearest large hospital to get help.
During the more than six decades in his field, Hendin also worked in academia. From 1960–76, he held a position at the Columbia University Medical Center, lecturing medical students, supervising psychiatric residents in their treatment of patients and teaching a course in research methodology. Next, he switched to the psychiatry department at New York Medical College so that he could focus more on his own research. At NYMC he sowed the seeds of his current work, steering a research and treatment program for combat veterans of the Vietnam War with PTSD.
Now Hendin hopes to bring his expertise to help military members who fought in the nation’s most recent wars.
In December, he received the first installment of a two-year, $686,000 grant from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to treat military combat veterans in Houston and study suicide in the military. A month later, he stepped down as CEO of SPI to focus on the work. He still sees patients before 9 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m., saving the best hours for his current research.
“I’m doing only work that I enjoy. I don’t have to go to administrative meetings anymore,” Hendin says.
Recently Hendin connected with U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University (known on campus as “Milvets”), vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and who now study at Columbia on scholarship aid. The group is working with SPI on a fundraising walk called “Walk for Life,” scheduled for May 5 in Riverside Park.
Throughout his life, Hendin has carried a sense of purpose that energizes anything he does, whether career-related or not.
As a senior at Columbia, he was the best player on the varsity tennis team. “He was very hard to beat,” says Bernard Sunshine ’46, Hendin’s longtime friend and a CCT class correspondent, who recalls Hendin’s quick anticipation of the ball on the tennis court. Sunshine was team manager.
Starting in the 1960s, Hendin served as the volunteer chair of the Columbia Tennis Center Executive Committee — a post he held for 20 years. He coaxed close to a million dollars from donors, mostly alumni, to build more tennis courts, an air dome and a club house at Baker Field. No stone was left unturned in Hendin’s efforts: He sent 200 handwritten letters, one to each member of the Columbia varsity tennis team going back to the 1930s.
“I don’t know if we would have had a tennis center if Herb hadn’t done that,” Sunshine says.
Tennis ended up helping Hendin’s game off the court as well. Strangers whom he found himself playing against, and then befriended, became instrumental to his foundation work, offering free legal help, for example.
Hendin, a father of two who is married to his longtime sweetheart, Josephine ’68 GSAS, and lives in New York City, still plays matches with friends from his Columbia days, including John Nelson ’45, ’54 GSAS, the former chair of the Italian department. For years he also played regularly with Seymour Waldman ’48, ’50L, a labor lawyer who passed away in 2009.
Despite the difficult career he has dedicated himself to, Hendin always has been an energizing force, Sunshine says. “You can see it come on when the smile begins to form on his face. No matter the topic, he has something funny to say about it.”
Karen Keller ’05J is a freelance journalist based in the New York City area. Her work has appeared in The Daily, AOL News, amNY, The Star-Ledger, Fortune, Travel & Leisure and other publications. Keller is the author of Portuguese For Dummies.