Obituary: Eleanor Slater / Advocate for families of the mentally ill

Sept. 7, 1924 - May 24, 2014

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Not too many decades ago, doctors believed that if a child had a mental illness, it was the fault of the parents -- particularly the mother.

That was the world Eleanor Slater entered, but it wasn't the one she left. Mrs. Slater, a longtime advocate for families of the mentally ill, died May 24 at her home in East Liberty of ovarian cancer. She was 89.

It was the 1960s when Mrs. Slater, who had never met anyone with a mentally ill child, learned she was the mother of a daughter with paranoid schizophrenia. In terms of knowledge about mental illness, the 1960s were "the dark ages," said her other daughter, Catherine Desjardins of Arlington, Mass.

"There was really such a lack of understanding, that people couldn't talk to their friends about it, they couldn't talk to relatives about it, because there were so many misconceptions and misunderstandings," Ms. Desjardins said.

Mrs. Slater needed support, and she knew others did, too, so she started the Pittsburgh Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"She was really a pioneer," said Anne Handler, her friend and a fellow advocate for families.

It was work she pursued for decades, helping families and their loved ones cope with a diagnosis that was often isolating and difficult to comprehend.

Eleanor Briggs was born Sept. 7, 1924, in Carrick, the middle of three children of a father who was a structural engineer and a mother who was a homemaker.

She went to Carrick High School, then worked in the shoe section of Kaufmann's department store. But with the advent of World War II and feeling a sense of duty, she went to work as a nurse's aide at Montefiore Hospital, Ms. Desjardins said.

Mrs. Slater was often involved in volunteer work, and in 1945 she married Walter Slater, a war veteran who worked for Mellon Bank and with whom she had two daughters.

A woman of many interests, Mrs. Slater played mahjong and cards, and was part of a writing group, Ms. Handler said. Her older brother, a pilot, inspired in her a love of traveling, and by the end of her life, she had visited more than 30 countries, many of them with her friend, Jean Kellogg of Scotch Plains, N.J.

Mrs. Slater was willing to try almost anything, Ms. Kellogg said, recalling a trip the two took in recent years to the Rocky Mountains in Canada.

"We climbed up a rock wall, and men that were half her age couldn't do it, and she could do it," Ms. Kellogg said.

Much of her life was devoted to making sure families of the mentally ill received support and that information about mental illness was available -- work that continued until her last days, her daughter said. "It was very brave of her to take this on," Ms. Desjardins said.

Mrs. Slater made sure that her body would be donated for research.

In addition to Ms. Desjardins, she is survived by her daughter, Laura Nowakowski of Carrick, three grandchildren and a great-grandchild.


Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com.

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