A University of Iowa researcher says a famous American hero from two centuries ago who’s being celebrated this year as half of the Lewis and Clark exploring team — likely killed himself. Historians have long debated how Meriwether Lewis died, but U-of-I counseling psychology professor John Westefeld says many of the warning signs were there for suicide.Dr. Westefeld says “He had some history of depression, of alcohol abuse. He had some real financial problems after the expedition that seemed to be creating some real stress for him.” In 1806, then-President Thomas Jefferson had rewarded Lewis with, among other things, the governorship of the newly-acquired Territory of Upper Louisiana. But by 1809, Westefeld says Lewis was deeply in debt and emotionally exhausted. There is some evidence he’d attempted suicide two times on his last voyage from the Midwest to Washington D.C. and Westefeld says one of the best predictors of suicidal risk is if they’ve attempted suicide in the past. He’d also made out a will. Records show Lewis died in 1809 at age 35 from two gunshots, one to the head and one to the chest, and had been pacing back and forth, talking to himself that night. Some historians believe Lewis was murdered but Westefeld says he’s not aware of any research having been done on Lewis by mental health care professionals. Some may say — so what if Lewis committed suicide? Who cares now? Westefeld says there is a lesson to be learned from the long-ago death of this national hero.He says “Any kind of person can attempt or complete suicide. It doesn’t necessarily relate to how wealthy you are or successful or your state in life. Here we have a person who was highly visible, accomplished a great deal. It kind of proves, in many ways…anyone is capable of doing this if they feel bad enough.” Westefeld’s report is scheduled to be published in “Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior,” the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology.
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