Emotional Health

Losing Hope: Understanding and Preventing Suicide

A cautionary tale involves Sherwin Nuland, who died in 2014 of cancer at the age of 83. He was a well-known surgeon and bestselling author. He was also someone who had recovered from debilitating, resistant depression and obsessional thoughts. In his 40s he spent several years in a psychiatric hospital, losing his family and his practice in the process. Doctors at Yale University, where he had worked and was treated, had given up hope when all the traditional treatments had failed.

The top psychiatrists got together for a meeting, and they all agreed that the only tool left in their arsenal was a pre-frontal lobotomy. In this procedure part of the brain is destroyed—in some ways the most important part—but it calms people down, or so they used to think. The doctors knew this was a serious step. It is irreversible, and their patient would never practice medicine or be a person with a full emotional range again. That’s if the procedure went well. The outcome could potentially be much worse.

A young resident who worked with Dr. Nuland begged them to let him try one more thing first: ECT—electro-convulsive therapy. At that time, the early 1970s, it was out of favor (though it is now making a come-back). The group decided to humor the resident and let him give it a try, as Nuland tells it, because he was a rising young star in the department.

The resident, Dr. Vittorio Ferrero, grew discouraged when there was no improvement after the usual course of 10 ECT treatments. He decided to press on, and by the 18th treatment his patient began to recover. Though Nuland has always had to be careful to “manage” his illness, he went on to have a very full and happy life, by his own account, as well an illustrious career.

Dr. Nuland’s TED Talk about this is very moving.  It was the first time he had revealed this history, though he often wrote about personal matters in his books. Even someone like him, who had a successful experience, was subject to feelings of shame about his history of depression—and he was a doctor who had made a remarkable recovery.

This tells us a lot about the obstacles that the average person faces when dealing with mental illness. We can all help by being open about our own experiences, and being watchful of those in our community who may need more care than they are getting. Don’t assume that someone’s mood is under their control or the result of some character flaw. Let them know you care and offer help. As Nuland says, “there is recovery. There is redemption. There is resurrection.” But people need the support of their family and community. Depression’s cruel reality is that it often prevents sufferers from positive action on their own behalf, and death is the only plan that seems to offer relief from their pain.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources. Here’s what you can do when a loved one is severely depressed.


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  • mickey monroe June 11, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you so very much. The video of Dr. Nuland, magnificent, inspiring, superlative. Your text about suicide, thank you some more.