Recent weeks have seen a spate of suicides by some of the most financially powerful people in the world. German billionaire industrialist Adolf Merckle lay down in front of a train after huge investment losses threatened his family's business empire. Chicago real-estate mogul Steven Good shot and killed himself in the driver's seat of his Jaguar after the property-auction business turned sour. René -Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet lost $1.4 billion to Bernie Madoff, went to work, took sleeping pills and slit his wrist.
The deaths bring up two questions: Is this the start of a disturbing recession-induced trend? And will it spread to rank-and-file Americans? The answers to both questions are a matter of debate. New York Magazine this week questioned whether a suicide epidemic was really taking place on Wall Street. In the blogosphere, Greenspan's Body Count—named after the former Federal Reserve chief whom many people see as partly to blame for the current economic crisis—offers a macabre tally of people who killed themselves or close family members allegedly due to economic pressures (the current tally is up to 72).
Psychologists acknowledge that gloomy financial forecasts could well result in an increase in the number of suicides over the next year. "The suicide rate has already gone up, and my suspicion is that it will not go down," says Paula Clayton, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "There are data to substantiate a relationship between unemployment and suicide."
Still, statistics on suicide are hard to interpret, especially in the short term. In 2005, the last year for which national data exist, the suicide rate was 11 for every 100,000 people, up slightly from the 10.7 rate reported in 2000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National statistics for 2008 won't be available for two more years. Medical professionals also caution that it takes more than a job loss to prompt someone to kill himself. "No matter what the final blow is, 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a psychiatric disorder at the time of their death," says Clayton. But, she notes, job and portfolio losses can contribute to a deadly mix of shame, substance abuse and loss of self-image that can push some vulnerable people over the edge.
"In our world, we have come to a place where things like wealth and status become things that are intertwined with the self too much," says Steven Craig, a therapist in Birmingham, Mich. "When you have that loss of identity, and the shame and hopelessness they feel, the blow to themselves is so severe they don't feel like they can recover." Both Merckle and Good were running family businesses, and their feelings of despair may have stemmed as much from shame about letting down their forebears as from an inability to face their own losses.
Financial catastrophes and stock-market meltdowns are less likely to afflict middle-class workers, suggests T. Byram Karasu, chairman of psychiatry at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine: "Middle-class people are less likely to commit suicide over money troubles because gains and losses are never that disproportionate; their family relationships tend to be closer, deeper and broader; and their religious beliefs are stronger and play a greater role in buffering their sense of hopelessness."
Nonetheless, members of the middle class do sometimes turn to suicide if they lose their jobs, and suicide rates tend to go up when the unemployment rate rises. "At lower [economic] levels, people worry about their jobs. Their identity isn't attached to their wealth, but it is attached to them being providers for their families," says Craig. In Detroit, where he practices, he's seeing very high levels of anxiety and worry among his patients. "If it gets worse or continues to stay bad, I would expect us to have higher levels of severe depression and higher levels of suicide."
It was the working class that eventually pushed the suicide rate up during the Great Depression. Immediately following the stock-market crash of 1929, the suicide rate actually declined for a couple of months, even in New York. (And while there were a few public financier suicides, bankers never did line up to jump out of Wall Street windows, as myth would have it. They were more likely to gas, poison or shoot themselves.) But in the troubled years that followed, the suicide rate rose from 14 deaths per 100,000 people in 1929 to 17 per 100,000 people in 1933. During the same period, the unemployment rate skyrocketed from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent.
For most people, economic distress manifests itself in destructive but not suicidal ways: increased familial tension, overeating, drinking too much and social isolation, and therapists are seeing an upswing in all of those behaviors. Rosalind Dorlen, a Summit, N.J., therapist who sees both Wall Street clients and patients unconnected to the financial industry, says she's seen a growth of alcohol abuse among clients who have never had drinking problems before. Some patients who come to her for unrelated problems, such as marital or childrearing issues, soon start talking about the economy, the stock market and their jobs.
To fight the financial blues, experts suggest new versions of the well-known "count your blessings" wisdom. Also, people who feel connected to a broader community and those who have good family relationships and enjoy time with friends and neighbors are better able to take financial setbacks in stride. "Define yourself broadly," says Craig. And it goes without saying that if you're feeling suicidal about your finances, you should get help; a good first start is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK).
People worried about money can ease their fears by writing lists of possible actions they could take to fix their finances—yard sales, second jobs, giving up a car, skipping the summer vacation. Just seeing a plan of possibilities can ease anxiety, even if they never actually have to resort to the list. Walking away from the hourly stock market reports and moving your body can also help: there's broad agreement that exercise can help fight depression in a fundamental, biochemical way. You may also take comfort from compiling a list of the people you most admire and noting how few of them are on this list because of their financial acumen. There probably won't be a Merckle or Madoff on it.
Laid-off workers or those worried about losing their jobs might consider taking an extra class or professional training that could position them for a better opportunity when the economy improves. As Long Beach, Calif., therapist Jana Martin tells her clients, "Things can change for the positive in the same abrupt way that they change for the negative."