Grieving family challenges stigma on mental illness, suicide

Sometimes I’ll look at the obituaries. It’s hard not to focus on a notice for someone who was too young to die of an age-related illness. For the death of a teenager or someone in their 20s, 30s or 40s, you’ll often be able to decipher a cause of the premature death if the obituary doesn’t specify.

“Died suddenly” can mean the person died in a car accident. There are also phrases like “after a short illness” or “following a battle with … .” The obituary ends with a request that mourners donate to some cause, usually one that helps with whatever situation that led to the person’s death.

Once, I came across an obituary for a young man that was tremendously moving. That’s because his family took the highly unusual step of coming right out and saying that their beloved family member probably committed and that he had long struggled with a mental illness.  They admitted to losing their family member to suicide, which is not something many survivors want to acknowledge, at least not in a public forum like a newspaper’s obituary pages.

This week, a family on the peninsula issued a statement publicly acknowledging the possibility that the high-profile death of a 39-year-old PayPal executive was suicide. The family said Eric Salvatierra suffered from depression and bipolar II disorder.

The Palo Alto man was hit by a train in Menlo Park Friday, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

His family released a statement Monday saying that Salvatierra was diagnosed with a mental illness last summer. The father of three daughters, 3 to 10, took a leave of absence. Over the past eight months, he and his wife “worked tirelessly with mental health professionals to get him through his illness,” the family’s statement said. “In the end, he lost his fight with this debilitating disease.”

While it will take months for Caltrain and the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office to officially rule Salvatierra’s death as accident or suicide, the family decided to be forthcoming about his illness and the possibility of suicide. Their reasons? “To support others who are suffering, and also to help abolish the stigma associated with mental illness,” the statement said.

John Donahoe, CEO of eBay, which owns PayPal,  said eBay will be making contributions to two organizations important to the family. One is the National Alliance on Mental Health. The other is Kara services,a Palo Alto-based non profit that provides counseling to people dealing with a sudden loss. 


2 thoughts on “Grieving family challenges stigma on mental illness, suicide

  1. Wow,
    It is families like this that will change the way we think about mental health and will ultimately cause more people to reach out for help.
    True heroes in their time of grief.


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