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Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Death and depression
Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Top right: A photo of Bonnie Blair and
a self-help book she wrote.

After a friend’s suicide,
loved ones agonize over
unanswered questions

Bullet First of two parts

By Susan Kreifels


Bonnie Blair arrived in Hawaii from Minnesota five years ago, ready to start a new life.

She had survived a divorce, completed studies to become a chiropractic therapist and inherited cash and stocks that would help her through the transition.

Blair displayed a warm, cheerful personality, made many friends and was active in church and civic clubs. She even authored a self-help book filled with ways "to improve the quality of your inner peace."

But her own inner self was far from peaceful. On March 4, friends found the 48-year-old Blair dead from self-suffocation. She left a tape-recorded message in a determined voice: "I don't want to do this. I have to do this."

She also left friends and family searching for answers. Her death came at the end of a week during which the controversial videotape "Final Exit" aired twice on public access TV, demonstrating nonviolent techniques to commit suicide. Blair also told a friend that she had ordered material via the Internet from the Hemlock Society on how to commit suicide. The videotape and the Hemlock Society advocate that option for the terminally ill who choose to die.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Dennis Smith and Julie Peterson, sorting through Blair's
belongings, pause to remember their friend, who
committed suicide in the apartment.

Blair had a history of depression -- and at a very low point in her life, she, too, followed the death instructions, friends and a medical examiner said. Some believe Blair might still be alive had she not learned about what appeared to be an easy and painless solution to a problem that experts say can normally be helped with treatment.

Her death has also led those close to Blair to question the support systems she looked to for help. And they question themselves -- could they have prevented the tragedy?

They want the public to know Blair's story -- in hopes that others won't be lost the same way.

Lifelong depression

Blair had suffered from depression "off and on forever," starting long before daughter Laura Deleski, 30, was born.

Blair took medication when she was a young child. And when Deleski was 8, her mother took an overdose of pills, but relatives got her to the hospital in time.

Her life was a roller coaster of mood swings, and sometimes she was so high, "she'd get laryngitis because she talked so much," Deleski said from her home in Willmar, Minn.

When Blair visited Deleski in Hawaii, where her daughter lived from 1991-93, she fell in love with the islands. After two failed marriages, and with her three children grown, she was ready for "a whole different world, a new lifestyle," Deleski said.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Dennis Smith, left, and Andy Yamato dismantle
Bonnie Blair's bed -- where she committed
suicide -- as Julie Peterson sorts personal effects.

Blair moved here, anxious to find her first job as a chiropractic technician. But with Hawaii's sour economy, she was let go from a job. She later worked as a substitute school health aide, never getting a full-time position.

"She felt so bad about not being picked," said Dennis Smith, her companion of three years. "She lost respect for herself."

The "whole spiral" of Blair's emotions headed steeply downward about eight months ago after she lost an Island Colony condominium and $50,000-$60,000 in a purchase agreement, Smith believes.

She had also purchased a time-share condominium on Kauai. And last August, while Smith was off island, Blair invested $10,000 in gum- and candy-vending machines that never left storage.

"She was an impulsive purchaser with no experience in handling money," noted Smith, a retired nuclear manager at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.

To add to her worries, Blair tested positive for tuberculosis in October, and took sick leave from her job. She eventually was referred to a health clinic.

No permanent job meant no insurance. A doctor at the clinic provided free care at his office, prescribing her medication for depression. But he was not a psychiatrist and he wrote a letter on her behalf to Med-QUEST, a federal- and state-funded insurance program for low-income people.

Blair's friend, Gale McClish, took her to an appointment at Med-QUEST in December. Blair had cashed in her stocks and prepaid her rent through May at Med-QUEST's instructions to qualify for the program.

McClish, who met Blair through church, recalled seeing the doctor's letter describing his friend with "chronic depression and suicidal tendencies."

Over the limit

But Med-QUEST's staff "ripped through her report," McClish said, and told Blair she was $22 over the checking account limit. She would have to return on Jan. 1 with a letter from her bank. That was a holiday, however, and no appointment was set for February.

"Those who are absolutely penniless can get all the help they want," said a frustrated McClish, who received psychiatric help for his own depression through the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Those people in-between who can pay the rent -- that's about all -- they can't get any help."

Med-QUEST requirements are strict, said Chuck Duarte, Med-QUEST division administrator, and even $1 over the limit would prevent eligibility. "It's nothing to do with medical conditions," Duarte said. "It's eligibility criteria. There is a limit to how many people we can allow."

'She crashed and went numb'

There was, however, a safety net. In January, according to Smith, Blair started seeing a psychiatrist at the state's Diamond Head Mental Health Center. State centers treat anyone diagnosed to be in a crisis situation, regardless of whether a person is insured.

Even then, Smith said the prescribed medication did not seem to work. "It just dumbed her out. Her personality got really flat."

Her friends worried. "Last year she was raring to go," said Julie Peterson, a federal court reporter who met Blair at square dancing. "Then she crashed and went numb. Her eyes have been so dead since November."

No one knew how hard she had crashed. "She told me she thought she would be better off dead a couple of times," Smith said. "I didn't consider it strong enough to take action."

Not even McClish guessed it would happen, although Blair told him two or three weeks before her death that she had ordered information from the Hemlock Society via the Internet on how to commit suicide.

"If I'm ever going to do it, I know how," she told him.

While he worried, he didn't tell anyone. "I told her we're survivors," McClish said.

Blair had even become disillusioned with her church. About six months before her death, she contacted the counseling center at Unity Church of Hawaii, but her call was not returned, Smith said. She then called the Rev. John Strickland, Unity's senior minister, who told her the services were contracted and that she would need to pay.

Strickland said Blair never called him, nor did he know she was depressed. He later learned a lay chaplain had provided counseling.

Since Blair's death, the church bulletin has included a notice that spiritual counseling was available on a "love offering basis."

"I try not to get into blame," the minister said. "I don't want this to happen again."

By January Blair was down to her last $100, even after cashing in a life insurance policy, and she decided to apply for welfare. "She would definitely prefer to work," said friend Cheri Hickman, a school teacher. "She must have just felt totally desperate."

On March 3, she was turned down for welfare -- ironically, the prepaid rent that was to help her get Med-QUEST disqualified her for benefits, Smith said. A tearful Blair called him from the welfare office and canceled their date that night, saying she just wanted to sleep.

Smith still went to her Ala Wai studio, and watched TV while she slept. At about 12:30 a.m., he awoke her, kissed her good night and left. That was the last time he saw her alive.

Tape 'a powerful motivator'

The next afternoon he found her in her pajamas, dead from a suffocation method shown in the "Final Exit" suicide videotape. While there's no conclusive evidence that Blair watched the videotape, nor was the Hemlock Society information found, her friends, family and the Honolulu medical examiner's office believe such information prompted her suicide. Another depressed man also killed himself the same weekend, using the same method.

Of 99 suicides on Oahu in the year that ended June 30, only two were caused by asphyxiation, and Dr. Kanthi von Guenthner, first deputy medical examiner, does not believe Blair's death was coincidental.

Friends and family believe the suicide information provided Blair an easy "solution." Indeed, they said Blair seemed more cheerful in her final weeks, and experts on depression say that is not unusual when people have made a decision to end their lives.

"Seeing it on TV is a very powerful motivator," said Hickman, who called the "Final Exit" showings "destructive and irresponsible. It's very, very possible that it was the final, unnecessary push."

Smith doesn't believe Blair "was desperate enough to try something violent" like jumping from a window or shooting herself. And had she lived longer, the drugs may have taken effect. "Everything she tried on her own in life turned out to be useless," Smith said. "I think she could have pulled through this stage if she just could have seen some light at the end of the tunnel."

Local Hemlock Society officials and Derek Humphry, whose best-seller was the basis of "Final Exit," believe that if people are determined to commit suicide, they should at least have nonviolent options. And they emphasize there is no evidence that Blair saw the videotape.

Members of the medical community, however, opposed the showings because they feared the videotape would encourage depressed people to kill themselves rather than seek treatment.

While Deleski does not oppose a terminally ill person's right to die, her mother "was a whole different ball of wax." She will fight any efforts in Minnesota to show the videotape on TV. She's also critical of state agencies for not providing more help.

But Blair's brother, Albert Bennewitz, of Alexandria, Minn., said Blair had received different types of support throughout the years. "We get too dependent on the system and don't put enough responsibility on ourselves. Sometimes the first thing we do is blame the system for personal problems."

Can't help themselves

Mental health experts, however, say when people become too depressed, they lack the will to help themselves.

Bennewitz also questioned whether Blair's suicide could have been prevented.

Peterson is wondering what she should have done to prevent her friend's death. Calls to a self-help group didn't offer Peterson any constructive advice, she said. "Should we have drug her to a hospital?"

Experts on depression say yes: It's better to call police for help than to do nothing.

Peterson, poking through the books on self-help and depression that crammed Blair's cheerful-looking studio, said Blair "just loved people. She was always smiling so she wouldn't intrude on anybody's time."

One hundred people attended her memorial service.

"Why didn't she understand how much joy she brought to us?" Peterson asked sadly.


Bullet What the experts say about depression in Hawaii.
Bullet How to recognize the symptoms.
Bullet How to get help.

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