ISF Speaker Spotlight: Dr. William Breitbart

The International Solidarity Forum (ISF) is one of WYA’s most awaited training events. It brings together certified members from around the world to discuss and listen to experts on a relevant issue before negotiating an outcome document that will articulate WYA’s views on the topic. The theme of the 16th edition of the ISF has recently been revealed as “Good Governance and Human Flourishing”.

As we countdown the months towards ISF 2019, we are happy to introduce the first installment of Speaker Spotlight. Here, we feature the most memorable speakers who our members have had the great fortune to meet and hear from as they spoke about their field of expertise in relation to the past years’ themes.

We look back at the talk of Dr. William Breitbart, the Jimmie Holland Chair in Psychiatric Oncology and Chief of the Psychiatry Service in the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He was a panel member from ISF 2018 when the theme on “Human Dignity and Bioethics” opened discussions on Surrogacy, Physician Assisted Suicide, Mental Health and Palliative Care. Read on to learn more about his talk.

“So when a patient asks: Doctor, will you help me die? That question should not be taken at face value.”

This was the crux of the main message given by Dr. William Breitbart as he shared his research on meaning-centered interventions and the underlying reasons behind the rising request from patients to hasten their deaths.


He began by telling the delegates how his own life had greatly influenced his work. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Dr. Breitbart shared how his eyes were opened to suffering at an early age. With his mother constantly asking herself “Why am I here? And so many others are not!”, he was urged to ask himself that same question every day. In an article for the ASCO Post, he shares more about this: “I grew up with a legacy of loss and suffering but in a home filled with love, compassion, and the need to find meaning, purpose, and significance. I accepted the responsibility and the burden of living not only my life, but also the lives of those who did not survive.”

In his career, he had studied complex psychiatric symptoms of suffering like depression, pain, fatigue, delirium, and anxiety. His work eventually led him to directly address the issue of how a human being faces death.

In a research Dr. Breitbart had previously conducted with his team, they found that 50% of cancer and AIDS patients who express a high desire for hastened death had unrecognized and untreated clinical depression. No one had really assessed or treated that these patients had met the critical criteria for psychiatric diagnosis. After doing a series of studies with terminally ill cancer and AIDS patients, they found that desire for hastened death remits for 95% of patients when depression is successfully treated.

Yet they were still unsatisfied because this did not address the other 50%. His team eventually found that “Lost of Meaning” contribute to these variants by 30% and hopelessness also became a significant factor. “But there was no medication for lost of meaning,” Dr. Breitbart shares after referring to the physician’s records on every available medication.  

That was when he turned to Viktor Frankl’s “Man Search for Meaning” whose work was concerned in treating the existential vacuum left by World War II.

Dr. Breitbart’s team conducted a series of studies on the role meaning plays in the psychological distress of patients. They found out that when one retains a sense of meaning, there are less depressive symptoms severity when you have cancer, less likely to have a high desire for hastened death, suicide, and hopelessness.

From 2002-2005, they sought the development of a meaning-centered intervention. The results were striking. Through the enhancement of meaning, the intervention has significantly decreased anxiety, depression, hopelessness and increased quality of life.

Dr. Breitbart ended his talk with some words of advice to the delegates before they framed the official declaration:

“That’s the only way you can fall out of love: when you fall in love with the “What” (What can they do? Their laugh, their bank account, etc.) than the “Who” (Who are they as a human being?).”

Want to hear from these experts yourself? Don’t miss your chance! Applications are now open for ISF 2019.