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David Shaffer, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, Columbia University

David Shaffer, FRCP, FRCPsych
Professor of Psychiatry
Columbia University
New York, NY

Dr. Shaffer is the Irving Philips Professor of Child Psychiatry (and Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics) at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York City. He was born in South Africa in 1936, but left that country in1952 for Switzerland, where he attended the International School of Geneva, at which time he decided to become a doctor. He obtained his medical training in London at University College Hospital, in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children, and in pediatric neurology at Yale University.

Initially, Dr. Shaffer worked as a pediatrician while continuing his training in various subspecialties and spending some time working in rural areas in South Africa. His interest in pediatrics turned to pediatric psychiatry training at the Maudsley Hospital in London. Always interested in research, he conducted the first epidemiologically based psychological-autopsy study of suicide in children and teenagers while still a resident. This research was the first to demonstrate the importance of “contagion” in youth suicide and later led him to studies that demonstrated the risk of publicizing suicide in “educational” classes and television films prepared especially for suicide prevention.

Dr. Shaffer moved to the United States in 1977 to take the position of chair of child psychiatry at Columbia University, which he held for 31 years, retiring in 2009. During that time, the department became the largest research-oriented child psychiatry center in the United States, training many of the psychiatrists who now lead the field. His early research interests in classification, neuropsychiatry, and youth suicide were maintained, and he participated in DSM-III and -IIIR and was co-chair for child and teen disorders in DSM-IV and DSM-5 and represented DSM child and teen disorders to the WHO and to ICD-11.

Dr. Shaffer's interest in neuropsychiatry led to a large follow-up study that showed how the combination of certain neurological signs with anxiety in early childhood was associated with the persistence of anxiety through to late adolescence and its relationship to suicidal behavior. He directed the first controlled “Teen Suicide Study” that showed the great importance of alcohol use as a predictor of suicide in older teenagers and showed that an early suicide attempt predicted later suicide in males, but not in females. The study was one of the first to document the impact of films that included heroes who committed suicide, including “educational films” made specifically for suicide prevention, confirming the potential for suicide contagion at this age and leading to his establishment of the Columbia TeenScreen Program that engaged in preventive screening throughout the U.S. His current research is focusing on the events and moods that occur during the period immediately before the moment when a teenager decides to commit suicide. A relatively new interest is that of OCD and social anxiety as conditions that can significantly interfere with the education and social development of highly intelligent and gifted young people.

Dr. Shaffer's past offices and awards include being past president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the International Academy of Suicide Research. He received the American Suicide Foundation’s Award for Research in Suicide in 1989 and the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry awarded him the Irving Philips Award for Prevention in 1998 and the Klingenstein Third-Generation Foundation Award for Research in Depression or Suicide in 2004. He was awarded the Ruane Prize for Psychiatric Research in Children in 2008 and the Joseph Zubin Award from the American Psychopathological Association in the same year.




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