David Shaffer, F.R.C.P., F.R.C.Psych., 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.
Dr. Shaffer obtained his medical training in London where he trained first as a pediatrician and subsequently as a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. During his psychiatric fellowship he conducted the first epidemiological study of child and early adolescent suicide using the psychological autopsy method. Unexpected—at the time—findings were the short delay between experiencing a stressor and the act of suicide, the frequency of aggressive behavior, and the suggestions that imitation played a role in youth suicide.
These findings would later be confirmed by a larger controlled study in New York and by other investigators throughout the world. Another important early finding from the New York Study was the significance of a prior suicide attempt as a predictor of lifetime suicide in males, but not females, for whom major depression was especially important.
The finding of specific risk profiles of treatable psychiatric disorders among suicide victims suggested that case finding would be a viable method for preventing suicide. One early approach used widely in the 1980’s—suicide-awareness educational programs—was found to offer few benefits. This stimulated the development of a screening strategy that led to the development of the Columbia Teen Screen as a technique for case finding that, under the leadership of his colleagues Leslie McGuire and Laurie Flynn, became a nationwide program.
Other research interests have included the development of computerized diagnostic instruments (The NIMH DISC) for use in large field studies. The DISC incorporated voice technology, thus greatly reducing the cost of administration and allowing self-completion by youth unable to read and obviating the constraining presence of an adult interviewer. Elements of the DISC have been employed by large, multi-site studies, such as the MTA; federally administered regular surveys, such as NHANES; and a number of other longitudinal studies. The availability of the instrument allowed careful examination of patterns of psychiatric comorbidity and how these unfold over time.
Dr. Shaffer’s contribution to psychiatric classification dates back to 1966, when he collaborated with Sir Michael Rutter to explore the benefits of a multi-axial system for ICD-9. This would subsequently be adapted for DSM-III. He was co-chair on the Child and Adolescent Work Group for DSM-III, DSM-IIIR and DSM-IV. He is currently chair of the Disruptive Behaviors Disorder Workgroup for DSM-V and will be representing the APA in the development of the ICD-11 by WHO.
He retired as director of the Division of Child Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI)/Columbia University (CU) in May 2008. He retains his academic position and is actively engaged in research on DSM-V, on the determinants and triggers of suicide ideation, and on the categorization of suicide ideation and behavior in adolescents.
He has served as a consultant on suicide prevention for the U.S. Department of Defense, the Indian Health Service, and the New York State Office of Mental Health. He was a member of the Surgeon General’s Advisory Task Force on Suicide Prevention. He is president of the International Academy of Suicide Research. He is a past president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and of the Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychopathology.
The American Psychiatric Association awarded him the McGavin Award in 1995 and the Itteleson award in 2000. In 2007, he received lifetime achievement awards from NARSAD and from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He received the American Suicide Foundation’s award for research in suicide in 1989 and the American Mental Health Fund Research Award for research on suicide in 1990. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry awarded him the Philips Prize for outstanding contribution to prevention in 1998, the Klingenstein Third-Generation Foundation Award for Research in Depression or Suicide in 2004, and the Catcher in the Rye Award in 2006. In 2009, he received the Joseph Zubin Award from the American PsychoPathological Association.
He has previously served as president of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and was chair of the Work Group on Research for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.