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NOTE: It is clear that medications made Matt’s situation dramatically worse, yet the news coverage (see below) does not even mention it. We see the same phenomenon over and over in Hundred Families stories. This distortion of the truth by omission is one reason most people do not recognize the dangers of psychoactive medications.
Family members confirmed to SSRI Stories that this young man had never before been depressed. He was distressed due to a break-up with a girlfriend. Matt was initially put on Lexapro and Xanax by his family Internist. Two months later, after experiencing no relief, Matt saw a Psychiatrist who switched him to Effexor, starting him at 5 times the recommended starting dosage (187.5 mgs. instead of 37.5 mgs). The Psychiatrist also added a mood stabilizer (Seroquel) “off label.” Four days later, and unbeknownst to family and friends, Matt drafted a codicil to his Will. Two weeks later, Matt arrived at THE MEADOWS in Wickenburg, Arizona to detox off the drugs already in his system. However, the Doctors there added three more drugs (Vistaril, Lamectil and Tegretol) to the “cocktail” he was already taking. Concurrently, these same doctors began detoxing Matt too quickly from his Xanax. At 10:00 a.m. on the morning before his suicide, Matt Burne experienced a medically documented Xanax withdrawal so severe it necessitated a rescue/stat dose of the drug to reduce his symptoms. For the next and last 22 hours of Matt’s life, no one administered any additional Xanax. He was found dead the next morning having h himself from a tree.
The place is haunted, but not as intended. No shrieks of fright or squeals of joy. No gasps of shock or sighs of relief. Even the birds are still.
A sign on the roof warns trespassers to keep out, but the grounded ghost peering through the attic window watches Edella Road with lifeless eyes, plaintively waiting for carloads of scare-seekers that never come.
Halloween was once like Christmas here. This year, it was just another Wednesday.
“I wanted to give some of what I had back to the community,” Matt Burne told me six years ago outside his South Abington Township home. I was there to cover “The Haunt on Sean Drive,” a free house of horrors that drew thousands of revelers each Halloween season.
I liked Matt right off. He was smart, funny and shared my love of a good scare. He had invited hundreds of strangers to traipse through his home, spent thousands on special effects, props and candy, and he acted like he just hit the lottery.
It was obvious Matt loved life, and why not? He was young, successful and handsome. He had a thriving business, loving family and friends and a bright future.
The Haunt was moving up in the world, too. When it outgrew the Sean Drive property, Matt founded For the Recreational Enjoyment of Everyone (F.R.E.E.), a nonprofit formed to make the attraction a better fit for Matt’s boundless imagination.
The “F.R.E.E. Haunt in the Abingtons” was established on 30 acres off Edella Road in South Abington Township, offering a state-of-the-art haunted house and trail staffed by more than 50 actors. Construction delays forced a scaled-back debut in 2003, but a grand opening scheduled for the following fall promised to be another big success for Matt.
But by the autumn of 2004, Matt was almost unrecognizable to family and friends. Deeply depressed over a breakup, the energetic, gregarious extrovert had been replaced by an exhausted, melancholy shadow. A battery of antidepressants only seemed to deepen his haze.
He was drifting away.
“He just wasn’t the same,” says Denise Burne Fein, one of two sisters. “We were worried, but he said he was going to get help, and he truly believed he was going to the right place.”
The place was the Meadows of Wickenburg, an inpatient psychiatric hospital in Arizona with a reputation for treating the Hollywood glitterati. Matt checked himself in at the Meadows on Nov. 24, 2004.
Four days later, he was dead.
“He shouldn’t have been able to kill himself in a psychiatric hospital,” says Denise, who lives in Florida but remains involved in the family’s businesses and returns to the Scranton area often.
“It was an inpatient facility. He should have been safe there.”
Although he threatened to hang himself, Matt was allowed to keep his belt, Denise says. Hourly staff checks on him were scaled back to every four hours, and the unit where he was staying wasn’t locked or alarmed, she says.
Because the unit was not locked down, Matt was able to slip out of the hospital unnoticed, the Burne family charged in a lawsuit against the Meadows. Matt was found on an adjoining property, hanging from a tree.
The lawsuit was settled early this year, but for Denise, the matter is far from resolved. If not for an unlocked door, she believes her brother would have overcome his depression and returned to his life and family.
“I can’t let him die in vain,” she says. “What happened to Matt should never happen to anyone. He was in a hospital, and he should have been safe. As a society, we need to make sure that when people reach out for help, they are kept safe.”
About 30,000 Americans completed suicide last year, and about 1,600 of those deaths happened in psychiatric hospitals, Denise says. “Completed” is the preferred term among survivors, she explains. “Committed” sounds criminal.
In May, Denise launched Break the Silence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting suicide awareness and ensuring patient safety and accountability in the treatment community. The group has been featured in several national publications, and maintains a Web site at www.break-the-silence.org.
“This is part of Matt’s legacy,” Denise says. “If we can save one person, he will not have died in vain.”
If anyone had told me that the bright, smiling young man I met on that starry night in 2001 would be dead by his own hand a few years later, I would have laughed. So would Matt.
His loss is a chilling reminder that in one way or another, every soul is haunted. Every life has its black corridors and blind corners. No one should have to navigate them alone. When one of us reaches out in the darkness, a helping hand must be found. When one of us chooses death, we are all diminished.
In memory of his son, Matt’s father, Richard, had the power turned on at the Free Haunt last week. Denise says the family is working to reopen the attraction next Halloween.
Flush with fresh electricity, the ghost undulated in the attic window, its fiery eyes peering into each passing car on Edella Road. Maybe it was the cool dusk, the ghost’s eyes, the eerie silence or all three, but I walked away with a serious chill.
Matt would have smiled. I did.
CHRIS KELLY, the Times-Tribune columnist, will not forget Matt Burne. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Times-Tribune 2007