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Actress Mariette Hartley Counsels Families Torn by Suicide



Suicide has a traumatic impact on the victim's family. The Hollywood actress Mariette Hartley lost three family members to suicide and is helping others cope with their loss.

Mariette Hartley has been a familiar face on television for nearly 50 years, from her roles in the early Western Bonanza and the classic series Star Trek, to recent shows like Grey's Anatomy.

Turbulent history

She comes from an accomplished family with a turbulent history. Her grandfather, John B. Watson, was a noted psychologist who is credited with founding behaviorism, the school of psychology that limits itself to the study of behavior and the environmental influences that shape it.

Watson also wrote extensively on child-rearing. Based in part on his animal studies, he argued that children should be shaped through external stimuli, and shown few signs of affection, such as hugging or kissing.

Old approach led to problems

Hartley blames that approach to child-rearing for some of the family's problems. And she says some family members have bipolar disease, a condition once known as manic depression. The family has faced the trauma of suicide, first by her uncle.

"And he took his life in 1959," she explained. "And as a kid from Connecticut, it wasn't talked about a lot, obviously, but I didn't get it. It really wasn't until 1963, when my father took his life in the next room and my mother and I were left with all of the cleanup, psychologically and physically, that it totally changed my life."

It took years of therapy for her to come to terms with the loss, which the family kept secret for decades.

She revisited the emotions of the trauma in 1984, when she starred in a television movie called Silence of the Heart, about a couple who had lost their son to suicide.

"And I asked to meet a family, and I was so grateful to these people - I'll never forget them - and they shared the experience of the loss of their son," Hartley said. "It was exactly the same experience as my loss with my dad - the trauma of discovery, all of that stuff."

Similar to combat veterans

She says she realized that suicide survivors experience similar stresses to combat veterans.

"They fought in a war that they didn't ask for necessarily," she noted. "They saw atrocities that they've never been trained to process, and then they come back into society, and nobody wants to talk about it."

Hartley works on behalf of military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic-stress syndrome.

Works as counselor

In 1987, she cofounded the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and now counsels others who have lost loved ones to suicide.

Therapist Karen Dean Fritts is also a suicide survivor. One day, she received a message on her answering service that her brother had killed himself. She was mid-way through her work day seeing patients.

"I hung up the phone. I felt numb. I felt other-worldly. And then I had responsibility to other people. I went back to work," Fritts said.

Feelings of shame

She says the view of suicide as shameful, hurts surviving family members.

"There's a lot of shame, almost as if it's contagious, that talking about it in some way ... it's like when somebody's very ill, I don't want to get too close, don't want to know too much, because in some ways, it overloads the human being's own processes," Fritts said.

Mariette Hartley underwent years of therapy before learning that she suffers from bipolar disease, like several others in her family.

"It's definitely a genetic component in our family," she explained, "and I am so grateful to have been born now where there is definitely help."

Suicide vs natural death

The actress lost her cousin to suicide a few years ago, and says her mother attempted suicide, but finally died peacefully with her family. She tells therapist Karen Fritts that this is kind of death brings a family together, unlike suicide, which pulls it apart.

"There is something very different about a gentle death that's inclusive," Hartley said. "I think what happens when it's that violent, what your brother did and what my father did, and what my beloved cousin did, my uncle did, it's so exclusive. It just shuts us out. And it makes me feel, which is the worst feeling in the world for me, powerless and helpless."

Both women say help can be found from organizations, support groups and medical professionals for those thinking of suicide, and counseling can help the traumatized families of those who take their own lives.

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