A Psychiatrist Revisits His Mother's Suicide to Find Healing, Insight

by Liz Neporent
September 19, 2023 at 2:05 AM UTC

In his new book, Richard Brockman, MD discusses how his career in psychiatry has been deeply influenced by his own mother's suicide.

Clinical Relevance: Fresh insights into suicide and mental health

  • Psychiatrist, Richard Brockman, MD has written a new book in his quest to make sense of his mother’s suicide.
  • His lived experience plus professional expertise offer a unique lens on the emotional intricacies of suicide.
  • Suicide rates in the U.S. surged by about 36 percent between 2000 and 2021.

Different motivations drive people toward a career in psychiatry. For Richard Brockman, MD, a clinical professor at Columbia University, the catalyst was not just academic interest but rather a personal quest to make sense of his mother’s suicide, which occurred when he was just seven years old.

Personal Catalysts

Brockman revealed that his recent book, Life After Death: Surviving Suicide, partly serves as an explanation for his career trajectory. His journey into genetics, epigenetics, and the neurobiology of attachment began the day he lost his mother.

“I refer to it as 7-2-2 because I was seven years, two months, and two days old the day she died,” he shared with Psychiatrist.com.

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He admits his career choices are closely interwoven with his search to understand his mother’s death. Among his many career accomplishments, he completed his residency at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center and his psychoanalytic training at Columbia Psychoanalytic Center. But he acknowledged that these academic milestones only tell part of his story.

“On one hand, it’s about my mother’s suicide and its impact on my family and me,” he stated. “On the other, it’s an exploration of my identity and my own healing journey.” His blend of personal and professional insight provides fresh perspective on the impact of suicide and survivors’ mental health.

Emotional Fallout

As the anniversary of his mother’s death approaches each year, Brockman experiences what he describes as “parasuicidal” feelings. These are thoughts and behaviors that border on suicidal tendencies, but never lead to an attempt.

“When she killed herself, my narrative was destroyed,” he shared. “I think my coming to grips and to terms with what she did had a lot to do with my transition from psychiatry, and particularly from psychoanalysis to neuroscience, where I needed the solid base of expertise to better understand her and to better understand the narrative, the biology, of her story and my own.”

He suspects that his mother suffered from undiagnosed bipolar depression, influenced by numerous pregnancies and miscarriages that led to elevated cortisol levels over a long period of time. Informed by his understanding of biochemistry, he believes this ultimately carried her into a clinical depression. Eventually, the emotional toll became so unbearable she took her own life, he theorized.

One haunting moment in his life came when he discovered the last note his mother left decades later, hidden among his late younger sister’s belongings. After her death, he was tasked with sorting out her New York City apartment. There, among the soggy boxes that had been damaged in a huge storm, was the note she left, explaining her choice. His sister had kept hidden from the rest of the family for more than 60 years. 

“Reading the letter was like hearing her voice again, but it also filled me with an indescribable mix of sorrow and questions,” Brockman recalled. ”In it she talked about her pain and how everyone would be better off without her and we should just forget about her.” He now keeps her words framed in his office. He views it as both a link to the past and a symbol of his quest to understand mental trauma.

The Bigger Picture

Suicide is not merely a personal matter for Brockman; it’s also a pressing public health crisis. Suicide rates in the U.S. surged by about 36 percent between 2000 and 2021. It now ranks as the 10th leading cause of death in this country. Nearly 50,000 Americans succumb to suicide annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brockman said one of the aims of his book is to enlighten others about the reasons a loved one chooses to end their own life. He tackles the subject as both a survivor and a healer. It’s a combination he hopes offers a unique perspective.

“While we’ve come a long way in destigmatizing discussions around mental illness, suicide remains a topic shrouded in shame and confusion,” he said. “I wanted to offer a more nuanced understanding of the topic.”

As Brockman sees it, the complexities of the human mind often resist simple explanations. His journey began as a  quest for his own answers but evolved into a broader search for global insights. Ultimately, he sees his work as a rallying cry for deeper conversations about mental health. Conversations, he hopes, that go beyond mere statistics.

 “I hope it contributes to our collective view of the devastating impact of suicide and how it can alter a survivor’s identity,” he concluded.

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Brockman’s book, Life After Death: Surviving Suicide, (Arcade, August 2023) is available on Amazon.com and wherever books are sold. 

If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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