For many years, Dr. Norman Tabachnick, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA Medical School, felt different from other suicidologists. Unlike many of his colleagues, he couldn’t recall ever contemplating suicide. And although he wrote his first scholarly work on suicide in the late ’50s, he didn’t study the subject exclusively. In fact, he branched out into research on child-parent interactions and the use of drama and improvisation in psychoanalysis.
But recently Tabachnick — who holds a Ph.D. in psychology as well as an M.D. — had a revelation. A long-suppressed memory surfaced: He had fallen into unbearable, perhaps even life-taking, despair after a conflict with his parents over a young woman he wanted to marry. “This was so terrible that it could work out in ways that life would not be worth living,” says Tabachnick, a co-founder of L.A.’s Suicide Prevention Center as well as the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis, where he trains other psychoanalysts.
Last year’s winner, along with his psychotherapist wife, Evelyn, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s lifetime-achievement award, Tabachnick has seen profound changes in the ways psychiatry considers suicide. There was a time when some of his peers would challenge a patient to do the deed. “The feeling then,” says Tabachnick, who punctuates his conversation with many cautious pauses, “was you needed to separate those who were ‘really’ suicidal from those who were manipulative.” Methodologies have improved since then, he notes, but, more importantly, “We’ve seen a change in the culture about accepting suicide as an illness, a fact of usual life, and not the exclusive domain of crazy people or odd people.”