By Glen Waggoner —
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a punishing psychological condition that is most frequently diagnosed in combat military personnel and adult victims of criminal attack and automobile accidents. Recently researchers have begun to focus on the link between PTSD and child abuse, and its connection to medical and psychological problems that surface in adulthood.
The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, based on an investigation of 17,000 patients by Vincent J. Felitti, M.D., of Kaiser Permanente, and Robert F. Anda, M.D., M.S., of the Centers for Disease Control, concluded that childhood exposure to physical and mental abuse and trauma contributes in a statistically significant measure to adult PTSD, increased illness, and earlier death. (The ACE study can be found at http://acestudy.org.)
The life and death of Leonard Belzer seems to be a “classic case” of the ACE study research.
On August 1, 2014, Belzer, 73, younger brother of TV actor Richard Belzer (Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) jumped to his death from the roof of his 16th-floor New York City apartment building. Neighbors said Belzer had always been in a good mood and loved talking about movies until the 2012 death of his wife, award-winning Sesame Street director Emily Squires. “He never quite recovered,” said one neighbor. “He was still friendly after she passed, but he just seemed more subdued.”
Did her death set off PTSD? Or were the seeds sown early in his life?
In 1968, when Belzer was 27, his father committed suicide. Was Leonard Belzer’s own suicide a clear-cut case of PTSD gnawing its way into his psyche decades earlier and setting the example for the dreadful decision to take his own life?
In a joint 1993 interview in People Magazine, Leonard and Richard Belzer went into detail about their unhappy childhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut. “Our mother [who died in 1964] didn’t know how to love her sons appropriately,” Leonard said in the interview. “She always had some rationale for hitting us.”
Exposure to such behavior at a young age can lead to damaging results later in life. Recognizing the correlation is why the ACE Study was such a breakthrough according to Felitti. Next, he said the findings need to be integrated into standard medical psychotherapeutic practice. The factors that trigger suicide can be numerous, complex, and hard to understand. Belzer had never been diagnosed with PTSD, but he did experience a number of early and later life traumas that, taken together, may have led to PTSD.
Knowing what we now about childhood trauma, did abuse set Leonard Belzer on a path to later committing suicide? We may never know for sure, but Dr. Felitti explained that is precisely why the ACE Study on medical, and psychological, treatment is so important. “But remember,” he cautioned, “even the germ theory of disease took a long time to take hold.”