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Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna's Death Ruled Suicide



Tuesday, August 05, 2014
South Royalton — Cheryl Hanna, a popular professor at Vermont Law School, influential scholar on domestic violence laws and highly visible media commentator in Vermont, died by suicide using a handgun, the state medical examiner said Monday.

Paul Henninge, Hanna’s husband, said in a phone interview that his late wife had twice been hospitalized for treatment for depression in the nine days before her July 27 suicide.

“She bought the gun the day before,” he said. “It is shocking that somebody who had voluntarily admitted herself to the hospital” for psychiatric treatment was able to easily buy a gun, he added.

Police would not comment on the origins of the weapon Hanna used. “I honestly don’t know where the handgun came from,” said Bruce Bovat, the public information officer for the Burlington Police Department. Officers involved in the investigation “hope it would be wrapped up in a couple of days,” at which point what had been learned about the source of the handgun would be disclosed, he added.

But Henninge said he had been told by Burlington police detectives that Hanna had bought the gun at a local store.

Henninge said that Hanna’s depression had progressed in “a quick downward spiral” and that she had first sought help from her general practitioner and had then begun seeing a therapist. She was admitted twice to Fletcher Allen Hospital for treatment, once for three days in the emergency ward, a second time for three days in a psychiatric ward, he said. She was released after she seemed to calm and showed some signs of stabilizing, he said. The next day she bought a gun, and the day after that she shot herself, according to Henninge.

Mike Noble, a Fletcher Allen spokesman, said that he could not comment on Henninge’s account because of patient confidentiality rules.

The availability of firearms is an important risk factor in suicide. “Firearms are used in over half of all completed suicides in the United States, and firearm suicides outnumber firearm homicides almost 2 to 1,” according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which advocates “reducing access to firearms for persons at risk for suicide as part of our overall policy approach for reducing suicide.”

Henninge said he was “not particularly anti-gun” but that some extreme views about the rights to gun ownership struck him as a “sort of antiquated notion of individual power.”

The news of Hanna’s death in her Burlington home five days after her 48th birthday elicited a chorus of grief over the tragedy and praise for her life’s work and humanity. “What an incredible loss, not only for the VLS community, but for the country and the world,” said Tim Duane, an environmental attorney in Santa Cruz, Calif., and former VLS colleague. “She just profoundly (affected) everyone she interacted with.”

During her lifetime, Hanna provided insight and passion as a legal scholar and commentator on the Constitution, domestic violence and the environment. Her death has been followed by a public discussion about depression and suicide that could now encompass issues about gun safety and availability.

The conversation began less than two days after Hanna’s death with a Facebook post by Henninge that described “a trying two months with my wife’s relatively recent battle with severe depression.” Three days later Henninge made the link to suicide explicit when he told an interviewer from Burlington television station WCAX that Hanna “had made up her mind that she wanted to take her life, and she did.” Hanna “had been caught in a vicious, dark place, where she couldn’t get out,” he added.

Depression “is a really common illness,” said Paul Holtzheimer, a psychiatrist and director of the Mood Disorders Service at Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. “If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you do know somebody who has.”

During their lifetimes, one in six Americans experience what the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls major depressive disorder. The malady manifests as a depressed mood or diminished interest or pleasure in most activities that lasts “most of the day, nearly every day” for at least a two-week period. Diagnosis requires evidence of at least four other symptoms from a list that includes changes in weight or sleep patterns, agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, inability to concentrate or make decisions or recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

An episode of major depression “may come out of the blue at any age,” Holtzheimer said. Depression sometimes follows a trauma or major life event, while some people have a propensity for major depression, he said: “It’s usually both.”

At least 30 to 40 percent of the population experience less intense or shorter bouts of depression that are still “functionally significant,” Holtzheimer said. But it remains an uphill battle to get the public to recognize depression as a mental illness with a biological basis, he added: “Depression is not a character deficit.”

The challenge of publicly revealing or seeking help remains a serious obstacle to those with depression, he said. “Stigma prevents people from getting the treatment they need.”

Hanna had been concerned about the impact disclosure of her illness would have on her as a public figure, Hennige said. She worried that her adversaries were “all going to find out and take me down,” he added. “She had a tendency to worst-case-scenario things.”

Depression is “a very significant risk factor” for suicide, Holtzheimer said. Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of suicides “come in the context of a depressive episode,” he added.

While electroconvulsive therapy has historically been used to provide effective relief for the most severe depression, the current first-line treatments are medications, or talk therapy, Holtzheimer said. Among those who get treatment “a majority get better,” he said. “Suicides, by and large, are preventable deaths.”

In 2011, a total of 39,518 suicides were reported in the United States, according to the suicide prevention foundation. While that did not rank suicide among the 10 leading causes of death in the general population, it was the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 15 to 34, the fourth leading cause of death for ages 35 to 44 and the fifth leading cause among those 45 to 54.

Rick Jurgens can be reached at rjurgens@vnews.com or 603-727-3229.