The death of New York Court of Appeals Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was tragic and shocking. But that her death is being attributed to suicide makes it also bewildering.
In the hours after her body was found, the police said they were treating her death as a suicide. The judge, 65, had recently told friends and a doctor that she was suffering from stress. And tragedy had followed her closely: On Easter in 2012, her mother committed suicide at age 92, according to two law enforcement officials. Two years later, around the same holiday, her brother shot himself to death, the officials said.
There would appear to be a thread of mental illness in her family, though no one has come out and said this, and I’m certainly not qualified to offer a meaningful opinion. Her doctor spoke of the stress she was under, the demands of her job as a judge on the state’s highest court, for speeches, for life with her new husband of eight months, her third new husband.
Still, no one saw this coming.
[M]any of Judge Abdus-Salaam’s friends and colleagues said they could not believe that she had killed herself, and investigators have not produced a suicide note.
It has raised awareness of the issues surrounding mental illness, in general, and depression, in particular. I have friends who suffer from these problems, and can’t help but be very sympathetic to them. Which makes it extremely hard to raise the other side of the discussion, as it conflicts with the desire to destigmatize mental illness so that people in need of help seek it without fear that their dirty secret will ruin their career, their life.
But Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam wasn’t just a person in need of help. She was a Court of Appeals judge. If she suffered from a disability that impaired her ability to perform that function, it isn’t just a personal matter. If her ability to think, reason, feel was influenced by mental illness, and it impacted the life of litigants who relied on her exercise of discretion, does it make her personal mental health a public matter?
It’s politically incorrect to raise this question. And it’s personally difficult, as it’s not meant to demean anyone who suffers from mental illness. At the same time, there is a concern for those whose lives are altered, perhaps forever, by her decisions. It’s not unreasonable to expect decisions to be made with a clear head and a sound mind.
I have no answer for this dilemma, and condemn no one. But to ignore this question is to elevate the concern for those who suffer their personal issues over the concern for those whose lives can be destroyed by them. Can they all be accommodated? I don’t know.