On the Death of My Friend Rich Simon

A Reflection on Bipolar Disorder and Suicide

Dan Siegel

Everyone who knew Rich treasured his exuberant and life-loving self. And, as some of you may know, he struggled for decades with bipolar disorder, of which severe depression was a symptom. After years of countless forms of treatment and support, he chose to take his life in November. That is the heartbreaking reality we are sharing with you, with the support of his family.

But as we grieve this tremendous loss, we are celebrating Rich’s enormous spirit, deep friendships, and contributions to the field. So many people are sharing the ways in which Rich touched their lives. We'll always keep his light in our hearts and his legacy shining in our work. - Psychotherapy Networker

________________________

Rich Simon’s beloved wife, Jette—a psychologist, colleague, and friend—has asked me to publicly shed light not just on serious depression, which 20 percent of us experience in our lifetimes, but bipolar disorder, the condition that Rich suffered and is found in only one percent of us. My aim is to offer a fuller understanding of how someone who spent decades working closely with so many therapists, and who was knowledgeable about so many schools of thoughts and clinical methods, could end his own life. While the piece underscores a critical clinical issue, my hope, and that of Rich’s family, is that it also honors his life and helps us begin the slow process of healing after losing him.

Rich had strong relationships and a loving family. With great courage and determination, he’d continuously sought treatment over many decades for the symptoms of bipolar disorder. His suicide is hard to accept for mental health professionals, who devote their days to offering hope and effective options for managing emotional pain. People in the community want answers, explanations. And I’ve talked at length with Rich’s immediate family and his Networker family about how I might attempt to offer some of that here.

Of course, when we discuss suicide with the general public, we need to do so with great care, given the research demonstrating that exposure to TV shows and articles dramatizing the act can actually increase rates of suicide. But here, I’m writing for our community of mental health professional that is facing a very different challenge—how to speak about the suicide of a public leader in our field, a colleague, and a friend to so many of us.

When I was a trainee in psychiatry, I first learned about bipolar disorder from Kay Redfield Jamison, who’d later write several books on the subject. Back then, the disorder was called manic-depressive illness, and in An Unquiet Mind, she revealed her own battle with it. She taught us that individuals with this condition have a high risk of suicide, and she showed us how to talk with compassion, nuance, and understanding about the unbearable ache of the mind and soul that often accompanies this disorder.

Many of us are attachment-trained therapists and keenly aware of how powerfully our early relationships influence how we come to regulate our internal worlds and connect with others. When these attachment relationships aren’t secure, the developing mind can be seriously compromised. While feeling disconnected from others can increase vulnerability to depression—and our society is rife with social isolation—early attachment experiences do not cause an individual to develop bipolar disorder.

As Rich’s friend for over two decades, and knowing his history, I can say that he likely inherited this condition, which he managed heroically for years and kept hidden from public view. While some clinicians who don’t have firsthand experience with bipolar disorder may assume the manic element is a kind of euphoria, they’d be terribly mistaken. Imagine a car engine inside the brain that doesn’t easily adapt to the natural changing of its own gears. At certain points, the car has a hard time driving smoothly, safely, and efficiently. In a hypomanic state, individuals may have increased energy, more ideas, and less need for sleep. But this early stage can transition rapidly into increasing extremes of mania, in which the brain is in overdrive. In such states, the mind can become dysfunctional in its thinking, and even overtly psychotic. In effect, the car veers off the road.

Following this out-of-control spiraling up, a crash begins, one that can culminate in severe depression. In this bipolar form of depression, our basic biological systems seem to shut down: individuals can’t sleep, or they sleep too much. They lose their appetite. Their energy drains away.

If Rich were editing this piece about someone else, he’d likely suggest something here like, “Danny-Boy, come on! Show, don’t tell!” But I won’t give details of those parts of his life he kept private. I will say that Rich’s bipolar disorder first revealed itself in his adolescence, before our field knew much, if anything, about this disorder. If we identify and treat it early enough, today there’s a good chance we can stop a process called kindling—a neurological term in which a condition begins to induce a worsening in its own unfolding. With bipolar disorder, this can mean that every 10 years, then every eight years, then more frequently, a cycle of mood swings can begin, often with days to weeks of escalating mania followed by a plunge into unrelenting depression that can last weeks, months, or sometimes, as with Rich at the end, years.

Even with this decades-long challenge, Rich never missed a single Networker Symposium in 43 years. For those of us who knew the depths of his internal struggle, it was always a relief that he could function in a role that meant so much to so many people—including him. He genuinely loved being on that stage, and many people tried to help him stay there for as long as possible: his family, close friends, coworkers, therapists, psychiatrists. He could not have had more love surrounding him at home and in the workplace.

Still, bipolar disorder can lead to such internal dysphoria that the brain shuts down, and life becomes too painful to continue. For the many people Rich shielded from his pain, his suicide was shocking, seemingly coming out of the blue, an act that must have been triggered by some sudden loss or crisis. But those who knew how deeply he suffered understood that Rich’s final act was not impulsive, but rather the end of a long struggle he could no longer endure. He approached it with as much respect and expressions of love and gratitude for friends and family as he could.

But we should be careful not to glorify this decision and risk leading others to “give up,” when, in fact, for most people with mood disorders, including bipolar disorder, there is effective treatment. Medications and electroconvulsive therapy successfully managed Rich’s symptoms throughout much of his life. But unfortunately, in his 70s, after four consecutive years of unabating severe depression, these treatments no longer helped. And he made a choice.

No one, including Rich, would want someone to choose the ending he did. Even so, he will always be a hero to me. I’m inspired by who he was—a fabulous, fun, loving, brilliant, insightful, compassionate, hilarious, social feng shui master, who courageously handled profound challenges for so many years. His ability to celebrate life despite his suffering is something to celebrate. What a gift to the world he was.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people . . . to find the best in others . . . to leave the world a bit better . . . to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” In this way, Rich’s life was a success. A resounding one. He taught me how to be more of a friend, how to find grace. And witnessing his devotion to his wife and daughter, and how, in turn, their devotion to him kept the love flowing in him even as his brain was shutting down, taught me the value of family.

Rich, your light will continue to burn brightly around the world, and your work will reverberate for generations of therapists and their clients. We are grateful for all that you’ve been in our lives (and will continue to be), for the community you built, and for the spirit of love and laughter you shared with us for all these years.

***

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, is the cofounder and executive director of the Mindsight Institute and the author of many bestselling books, including Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence.

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33 Comments

Thursday, January 14, 2021 2:23:18 PM | posted by Tawna Loutsenhizer
I am so deeply saddened to read of Rich Simon’s death. When I saw him at a conference or saw him on a video, he exuded warmth, humor, and life. That is hopefully how he will be remembered. I am so sorry to hear of his deep and dark depression and his decision to end his life. My sympathy goes out to his family, friends, and colleagues. What a loss.

Monday, January 4, 2021 10:27:12 AM | posted by Anibal
Dan, such wise and sweet words, written with such clarity and courage. And speakinf for your great love and friendship. Thanks for this Dan!

Saturday, January 2, 2021 12:53:19 PM | posted by Claire Hershman
Thank you dr dan for your heartfelt and heart warming tribute to your lost friend.who was clearly so talented . There is something doubley awful to loses a friend when you are both clinicians. I think its a unique pain but thank you for your article. Like may readers i have read the magazine for many many years . A sad loss

Wednesday, December 30, 2020 5:50:34 PM | posted by Tim Harvey
Dear Dan. Thankyou for your article - I was so shocked at Rich's sudden death and confused by the silence around the cause. I've been an avid Psychotherapy Networker reader for many years. No matter what the topic that month, I would always read Rich's editorial. That he was struggling so much during the last years is a complete surprise to me - his comments on the articles were always so positive and to the point. I love the Networker “Danny-Boy, come on! Show, don’t tell!” style - it made the articles "real" for me, not just pontifications on various theories. You're missed around the world Rich - thankyou so much for your life.

Sunday, December 27, 2020 8:39:43 PM | posted by Annette Brehm
Thank you for this thoughtful reflection on the life and death of a truly influential man. My sympathies to his family, friends and many colleagues. I appreciate his family's strength and willingness to ask Dr. Siegel to help those of us in the 'outer circles' of Rich Simon's life -- that shows a remarkable generosity of spirit. I've read the Psychotherapy Networker for nearly all of it's 40 years -- I remember when it used to be called the Family Therapy Networker. I have treated individuals with Bipolar Disorder and have tremendous 'respect' (for lack of a better term) for the power of this illness. My thoughts are with his family as they grieve his loss and also with the staff at the Networker as they work to keep the heart and soul of this excellent magazine alive.

Monday, December 21, 2020 5:38:32 PM | posted by Colleen M Austin, LMSW USC
Thank you Dan for showing us that even the strongest people suffer, and sometimes succumb to this wretched affliction. It is an invisible disorder that unless there is a sever manic episode often goes unoticed to most people, whether someone is medicated or not. We in this profession are masters at using coping skills to the nth degree, but at some point if overtakes our minds ( Michael McCarthy hope you are reading) It does break down the mind in the respect that too many thoughts become so pervasive that the thoughts we need to function get lost in our own minds. I am saddened by such a lost of a man I did not know other than through reading studies, being mentioned in books (as a student,) or used as a resource in a peer reviewed journal. I am happy that someone knew how much he suffered for decades. It explains so much how people with bipolar disorder that is managed with or without medication can still become the ultimate demise of our skilled minds. Thank you again and my heart go out to family, friends and colleagues.

Monday, December 21, 2020 1:00:36 PM | posted by Marlie Thomas Rowell
Dear Dr. Siegel, Thank you for your heartfelt tribute to your dear friend. So very sorry for your loss; you've honored him well, thank you. I lost my husband to suicide 11 years ago--similar plot line. Brilliant man who literally died trying to stay alive. I remember one of his friends saying to me, "If he was that sick, I would have known." Ouch. And no. My husband (perhaps like Rich) shielded most people from his pain...until he couldn't. I share my Suicide Widow Etiquette website if you think it might bring comfort to you and/or Rich's loved ones. Post-suicide isolation is no one's friend. You have better, wiser resources. My only credibility is lived experience. I'm an artist; my only claim to 'fame' in your world is writing a piece for Rick Hanson's current (December) Wise Brain Bulletin. While sequestered early in the pandemic, I created a Suicide Widow Etiquette YouTube about my Post Traumatic Growth story. If you're brave enough to spend on hour with a suicide widow, you can. But be warned, it's homemade, unprofessional...comical--at my expense. But needed. More of us to speak our healing truth. https://youtu.be/3w-nQJu5DMw. Again, thank you for sharing your heart--and thank you for sharing Rich with us. Gratefully, Marlie Rowell

Sunday, December 20, 2020 8:10:04 PM | posted by Andrea M Valerio, PhD
I read this message about Rich Simon's battle with bipolar disorder and subsequent suicide immediately upon completing my eulogy for my bipolar brother's recent death. My nerve endings are tingling with the resonance of many parallels. Although my brother did not actively commit suicide-- (he died from recent medical complications from his 1980 motorcycle accident traumatic injuries)-- his risk-taking behaviors in life were death-defying. He was also tender, irreverent, caring, oblivious, funny, and serious, etc. He loved to laugh and play pranks... and he suffered from depression, blackouts, and memory lapses. And like Rich, he was loved-- his loss felt deeply by many. My heart goes out to Rich's family. Like so many psychologists, I have valued all that Rich Simon has offered of himself through his many years hosting topics and clinicians at the Psychotherapy Networker. His death is a great loss for the mental health community. RIP Rich! Simon!

Sunday, December 20, 2020 5:47:17 PM | posted by Elaine DiStasi
Dr. Siegel, Thank you so much for this beautiful tribute to Rich Simon, and the clear explanation of Bi-Polar Disorder and how it affects the brain. I was one of those who was shocked to hear he had died, and as someone who had a family member who had BPD and committed suicide, this made much more sense to me. I'm so sad that he suffered so much during the last four years, and wish only the best for those he left behind. Please extend my heartfelt condolences to his personal family and those at the Psychotherapy Networker. Thank you again.

Sunday, December 20, 2020 3:18:23 PM | posted by Garrett O'Dowd
Dear Dan, Thank you, and thanks also to Rich's family for being so open and sharing your thoughts, compassion and understanding on Rich and challenges around bi polar illness and suicide. I work as a grief counsellor and have contact with many people who have lost a loved one through suicide. Your article and the insights you provide is something I may be able to share with some of my clients to support them and provide for them further understanding around the loss of their loved one loss as a result of suicide. Regards, Garrett O'Dowd Coordinator/Counsellor Mercy Grief Services Australia

Sunday, December 20, 2020 1:56:10 PM | posted by ALINE GILOR
What a loss! This website has changed my professional life and I hope Rich's legacy will be continued. Thank you so much for this article for its clarity and honesty as it would be so easy to plunge into despair of thinking that our profession can't help. It widens the perspective and actually brings hope.

Sunday, December 20, 2020 10:35:26 AM | posted by Anne Marie
What a lovely tribute and reminder of the complexity of mental illness. Thank you Dan.

Sunday, December 20, 2020 8:26:15 AM | posted by Henry Marshall, PhD
I deeply appreciate this wise and compassionate article by Dan Siegel. My heart goes out to Rich's family and personal friends. I have deeply appreciated Rich's contributions to my professional life and I will miss him. When I reflect about the suffering he endured and his decision to end his life, I am saddened. I'm also strengthened to discuss choices at the end of life. Unbearable suffering without prospect of improvement can coexist with top-notch therapy and loving support from family and friends. I have experienced this to be tragically true in the death of my wife four-and-a half years ago. She and I had lived in the Netherlands for sixteen years when she entered the downward spiral of severe osteoporosis, excruciating pain, and lung disorder. She requested euthanasia, but before it could be approved she contracted pneumonia and died receiving palliative sedation. Deep discussion and realistic options were essential for her to have a dignified death. "Unbearable suffering without prospect of improvement" is written into the Dutch legal guidelines for euthanasia. Discussion about this is normal in the Netherlands. In most of the US, end-of-life options are very limited. Euthanasia is not legal. Assisted suicide is very limited. Discussion seems to me quite limited. Beyond the fact that most of my family lives in the US, I certainly wish solid support for anyone in a situation of hopeless unbearable suffering. My sense is that it honors Rich and his contributions to psychotherapy to continue this discussion.

Sunday, December 20, 2020 5:55:12 AM | posted by Carol Schreck
Thank you, Daniel Siegel, for this touching, heartfelt tribute to your friend, Richard Simon. Those of us who have been in the field for years have learned to live with paradox—agony and ecstasy, while finding the courage to embrace both in ourselves, our patients and our students. Bless you for capturing It so well in your dear friend.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 10:45:47 PM | posted by Patricia Papernow
Dear Dan, Thank you so much for this loving, honest, tender and very real good bye to Rich. Patricia Papernow PS Kay Jamison and I were high school classmates and friends. What an extra little gift to hear you describe her teaching. It feels so true to her deep soul.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 10:27:13 PM | posted by Judy A Waters
Dr. Dan this is such a beautiful and helpful tribute to Rich! I am grateful his family asked you to tell his story. As always you have enlightened us, as well as moved us, to hold Rich and all those who are challenged with this disorder in a compassionate frame, honoring the journey, the struggles and the depth of the pain. Rather than creating a feeling of hopelessness, I am even more inspired to try and help and hold those who suffer. I am so sorry for your loss of such a close friend. Thank you for bringing him more to life for those of us who didn't know him as well. In peace and partnership, Judy

Saturday, December 19, 2020 4:41:31 PM | posted by Babs
As a Networker subscriber since 1982, I was surprised to learn of Rich's death and just assumed it was either a heart attack or COVID related. I was surprised to learn of his Bipolar Disorder and suicide. Dan Siegel's tribute was moving and thought provoking. As I have a 72 y.o. brother who is bipolar, has recently undergone a lot of ECT, and seems to be spiraling downward, this article really caught my attention. It is difficult to know when someone's pain is just too much, especially when we really don't know what else to do after exhausting all the tools available to us. My heart goes out to Rich's family, as suicide always leaves us with more questions then answers.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 4:35:34 PM | posted by Colette Golden
I only knew Rich Simon from attending the Networker conferences and from viewing his countless interviews with people in the field. Yet,I am profoundly shaken ,not having been aware of all he endured before his passing.It is terribly sad....he had so much impact on those who had the privilege of knowing him.I hope he knew that. My deepest sympathies go to his family and friends . May his memory be a blessing. Colette Golden

Saturday, December 19, 2020 3:54:53 PM | posted by Michael McCarthy
As someone who recently lost someone to suicide who had been Dx'd with bipolar disorder, I wish Siegel would stop his nonsense about brains shutting down. The brain doesn't shut down. Areas of the brain "don't go offline." It's qyackerly like this that prevents people from getting effective Tx.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 3:50:19 PM | posted by jill shanker
My heartfelt sympathies to Rich Simon’s family, his extended family, his community & to all who loved him. I am enriched as a woman & a therapist after listening to & learning from this brilliant & compassionate man. May we honor him through our lives & our work. May his memory be a blessing.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 3:14:11 PM | posted by Don Shewey
Thank you, Dan Siegel, for this generous, honest, and compassionate post. I never met Rich Simon but was an ardent longtime reader and admirer of the magazine -- with which he was so closely identified -- and was shocked and saddened to hear of his demise. It would be easy to gloss it over and let the details pass into history. I appreciate your consideration for the field to share this information, which helps make his ending no less sad but a little more understandable. Blessings and heartfelt best wishes to you, his friends, and his family in this tender time of loss.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 3:03:46 PM | posted by Danielle
A truly beautiful article, and one that is so helpful in understanding the long-term battle of bi-polar. Thank you Dan for writing this and thank you to Rich's family for allowing this to be published.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 2:33:27 PM | posted by John Morrissey
I am very sorry to learn of our loss of Rich Simon. I always enjoyed the direction he took us in his editing, in his insightful published interviews and his contribution to our profession. Dan, thank you for sharing your own sorrow. My condolences to those who were most close to him.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 2:24:18 PM | posted by Peggy Strong LCSW
I am deeply saddened by Rich's death. He did indeed leave the world a better place.The Networker Symposium s and the Psycotherapy Networker Magazine were enormous helps in my growth as a therapist. To his family and the Staff at The Networker ,my deepest sympathy and gratitude for sharing all that went into making Rich a remarkable human being and a blessing to the world.Shalom

Saturday, December 19, 2020 10:28:18 AM | posted by Janice Levine
This is beautiful and so helpful Dan. I want to thank Jette and support her decision to be fully transparent to those of us who knew and admired Rich. My husband also took his life a few months ago, and I know how helpful it is to be open and honest about what happened. There is no shame in suicide or in any of the disease processes that afflict the mind. I just want to add my warmest and most profound condolences to Rich's whole family.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 8:48:21 AM | posted by Sharon Fisher
I can’t express in words how important this article and sharing us for me. I have several family members who struggle with bipolar disorder along with other comorbid disorders. In addition my best friend died by suicide a decade ago. I’ve been a therapist for over 25 years and from 2002 began attending the Networker Symposiums which always felt like a large wild and loving family greatly due to the intoxicating leadership of Rich. We will continue to need each other in circles of community to heal ourselves and others. Especially during this time of isolation and separation. Can we build a network of therapists’ therapists? It is so difficult to work around conflicts of interest and maintaining confidentiality when you are the therapist and there are so many others looking to you for compassion.

Saturday, December 19, 2020 7:10:07 AM | posted by candice
Thank you so much Dan , for writing this to us all. Rich was a person who has had a profound effect on me even though I didn’t know him personally. Your explanation of the advancement of bipolar and how it just becomes unendurable pain that gets worse and more painful, really illustrated where Rich was. It comforted me to know it wasn’t impulsive because I worried that he’d gotten a medical diagnosis or something. Your letter is a gift to all of us who felt genuine affection and deep respect for Rich.

Friday, December 18, 2020 7:41:20 PM | posted by patti
Rich touched our lives in ways he will never know. We are profoundly grateful for his passion, capacity to kindle curiosity, community, courage and compassion for fellow beings. To Rich's family, our heartfelt love and compassion. Dr. Dan, my husband and I attended your/our PEPP meeting today and learned for the first time about the passing of Rich and of this letter written by you. As we continue to integrate the news of Rich, we deeply appreciate your thoughtful, kind, loving, and professional letter, a bridge, a lamp in the darkness.

Friday, December 18, 2020 6:13:59 PM | posted by Michele Weiner- Davis
Dan, Thank you for your beautiful, profound and informative writing. It will help countless people begin to make sense of Rich's choice to end his life. As someone who was privileged to have known of Rich's personal suffering for many years, I have found peace in focusing on the magnitude of his courage to cope with his unrelenting pain. Thanks so much, Dan, for reminding us of Rich's challenges and his magnificence. Michele Weiner-Davis

Friday, December 18, 2020 5:59:03 PM | posted by Madeline Keller
Oh , so sad yet Rich still teaches us.

Friday, December 18, 2020 5:23:59 PM | posted by Laura Steele
I echo Dietra's thoughts, feelings. I just heard about Rich's death from Dan at the end of his MWe session today, and was stunned. Rich's opening antics, his singing, acting, performing at every opening of Networker were hugely anticipated and tremendously appreciated and enjoyed. He had so many gifts, not the least coming up with that annual gathering, which introduced us to so many incredible people in the field, Dan among them. I always felt like the organization of Networker that included so much understanding of our need for fun, nourishment and love, came out of Rich's generosity of spirit and heart. Dan your piece said just the right thing for all of us, thank YOU.

Friday, December 18, 2020 4:56:03 PM | posted by Bobbi Newman
Thank you so much, Dan, for sharing for Rich what he struggled with, while making such a difference in so many lives. I'm sure he knew how loved he was, And I do understand how deeply painful depression is. My deepest sympathy to his family and his dear friends.

Friday, December 18, 2020 1:39:43 PM | posted by Dietra Gamar
Thank-you Dan This is a much needed article. Not so much in it's content as in it's recognition that we ,the "Groupes"of The Symposium desperately needed to have some understanding as to how this shocking act could have occurred.Some of the best...the most informative...the most constructive and I might add the most fun took place every year in Washington D.C in March. It actually started in December as with great anticipation I would look for that years program.I traveled with a close friend from /nyc for 20 years to attend the conference. The opening night..Rich's show was always such a delightful way , so uplifting...to start the experience. to think someone who was so loved...by so many..who had so many friends in the field..who knew so much..about treatment saw this as his final option was so disturbing..so sad..so tragic. your article does wonders in starting the healing...and gives life the stark reality..that Sometimes we just need to "Accept the Things we can not change. Accepting Rich's choice and his death is something I'm still working on. My deepest sympathy to all the other members of this group , his family and his dear friends...like you