Mother endows suicide chair

August 2, 1996

A woman whose son took his own life has helped make possible an endowed chair in suicide studies at the University of Toronto.

Doris Sommer-Rotenberg has helped raise Can$1 million (Pounds 490,000), which will be equally matched by the university to set up what it says is the first endowed chair of its kind.

She says the chair in suicide studies, to be established in Toronto's department of psychiatry next January, will help fulfil the promise of the life of her son, Arthur Sommer Rotenberg, a Toronto general practitioner who in 1992 ended his life aged 35, after suffering bouts of manic depression. "For every Can$100 raised there was more than that raised in awareness," she said, adding that suicide has generally been kept under wraps by the families left behind.

Mrs Sommer-Rotenberg, 69, hopes the programme will diminish some of the stigma associated with suicide. The three years of the fundraising team's work given people who have been affected by the tragedy of suicide the opportunity to channel their grief. One man whose daughter killed herself donated Can$10,000. Others wrote to and approached Mrs Sommer-Rotenberg with their own grief.

She heard stories of neighbours crossing the street to avoid talking to the grieving person and of family members who felt blamed. Some were so angry at the person who killed themselves that they discounted the possibility that the suicide could have been caused by mental illness.

Paul Garfinkle, chairman of Toronto's psychiatry department and president of the Toronto-affiliated Clark Institute, hopes that the programme will help people move away from that tendency to blame.

"We don't get mad at somebody who has arthritis," he said, adding that many still think that a person who is suffering from schizophrenia, a high-risk factor for suicide, should just pull up their boot straps.

Every year, out of a population of 30 million, about 3,500 Canadians kill themselves, a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. The rate among 15 to 19-year-olds has doubled since 1979 to 13.5 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000 people, ranking it behind only New Zealand and Finland.

The programme, which is to be named after Arthur Sommer-Rotenberg and exist into perpetuity, will make the study of suicide one of the main academic priorities of the psychiatry department, according to Dr Garfinkle. The chair will also make the city a leading centre of suicide studies, he believes.

"It will primarily focus on scholarships but there will be many spin-offs," said Dr Garfinkle, who expects the programme to also focus on public education and political advocacy. The advocacy could involve governments and the public knowing more about about results from studies that place the availability of guns and the breakdown of families as contributing factors to high rates of suicide.

Dr Garfinkle will soon be interviewing several promising candidates for the chair who will be responsible for training a cadre of scholars and overseeing the instruction of the psychiatric residents and the medical students.

Having gone public with her tragedy, Mrs Sommer Rotenberg has helped others talk about suicide and brought it out into the public domain. She uses the analogy of a plant left in a cupboard to rot. Bringing the issue into the light has allowed for growth and healing she says. "A family is only as sick as its secrets," she adds.

Dr Garfinkle and Mrs Sommer Rotenberg give a lot of credit for the idea of the endowed chair to Frederick Lowy, former dean of medicine at Toronto and now the rector and vice chancellor of Montreal's Concordia University but Dr Garfinkle says Mrs Sommer Rotenberg has been the driving force and applauds her courage.

"She took a personal tragedy and turned it into a greater good for the community," says Dr Garfinkle.

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