Did antidepressants help drive Mary Richardson Kennedy to suicide? That’s the question family members and watchers are asking in the wake of a just-released Westchester County medical examiner’s report that revealed the estranged wife of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. had three antidepressants in her system—trazodone, venlafaxine, and desmethylvenlafaxine—when she hanged herself in May.
“A doctor would never prescribe more than one antidepressant,” says Dr. Frank Vaccaro, a prominent New York psychiatrist. “More than one is an overkill.” Dr. G. Heath King, a Florida psychoanalyst and former Yale professor, concurs. “In excess, some side effects are exaggerated,” King says. “Even at standard doses, venlafaxine alone has been shown in at least three independent international studies to significantly increase the risk of suicide.” Other experts point out, however, that there are occasions when psychiatrists will prescribe a mix of antidepressants as an effective treatment for their patients.
According to sources close to the family, Mary changed antidepressants in 2006, and it is highly likely that the three medicines found in her body were prescribed at different times and that she herself decided to take them ensemble. Although Mary had grappled with alcohol abuse for several years—she’d been arrested twice for DUIs since her husband filed for divorce in 2010—there were no traces of alcohol in her system at the time of her death.
Mary was diagnosed in 2006 with borderline personality disorder by Sheenah Hankin, a well-known Manhattan psychotherapist. After receiving the diagnosis, Bobby and Mary arranged a meeting with Dr. John Gunderson, a Harvard psychiatrist often called the father of BPD who concurred with Hankin’s assessment. But just as Hankin was making headway with her patient, Mary left her treatment, and the Kennedys seem to have gone diagnosis shopping. The BPD diagnosis was first reported in a June 11, 2012, Newsweek cover story I wrote.
The Richardson family has said that their late sister did not have borderline personality disorder, but was depressed.
Watch our mashup of the Kennedy wives and their legacies.
In the aftermath of Mary’s death, the bad blood between the Richardsons and Kennedys has spilled over in an ugly battle involving issues ranging from the funeral and the burial ground to the spin in the media. The Richardsons wanted their sister buried in the family plot in Vermont. Bobby and Mary’s two oldest children, Conor and Kyra, spent the entire day in court two days after their mother’s death to tell a judge that they wanted their mother’s remains buried near the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, where they would have an easier time visiting her (she was ultimately laid to rest in Hyannis Port). New York tabloids described a lurid scenario in which Bobby Kennedy’s womanizing and abuse led to his estranged wife’s death. But the portrait that emerges from a sealed 60-page court affidavit filed by Bobby during divorce proceedings, which I reviewed in detail for the Newsweek cover story, paints an entirely different picture—one of a desperately sick woman.
Mary Richardson Kennedy’s death continues to hang over both families. “I would recommend that both parties, the husband of the deceased and the Richardson family, engage in an open, informed discussion of Mary’s suicide without remaining marooned in recrimination and counterrecrimination,” says King, the Florida psychoanalyst. “This would shed light on her condition and those similarly afflicted and be healing for their children—indeed for the national psyche itself.”