Economic Depression Suicides a Myth?

Newspapers don't usually report suicides, but the death of 53-year-old Carlene Balderrama of Taunton, Mass., made national headlines in July as an exception and as a warning bell for oncoming personal tragedies in the mortgage crisis.

Balderrama was facing imminent foreclosure when she faxed a suicide warning to her mortgage company July 22. By the time police arrived, she had shot herself with her husband's rifle.

Since news of Balderrama's death, investment banks have failed, stock markets have tanked and at least half a dozen stories of financially motivated suicides have bubbled up to make national news.

But experts in suicide prevention tell a different story than the national headlines and the emotionally charged comparisons to the dark days of Black Tuesday and the Great Depression.

"A lot of people are influenced adversely by the economic situation; very, very few are going to take their own lives," said Dr. Yeates Conwell, professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester in New York.

"Those that do are made vulnerable by a variety of other circumstances," he said.

The Taunton, Mass. house of suicide victim Carlene Balderrama is photographed Wednesday, July 23, 2008.

Each Suicide a Complicated Story

In late October 2007, police went to the home of James M. Hahn, a 39-year-old chemist, to serve eviction papers, only to find him barricaded and surrounded by harmful chemicals. After a 12-hour standoff, Hahn turned a gun on himself, according to reporting by Houston's KPRC-TV.

Police told KPRC-TV news that Hahn was suffering financial and drug problems, but neighbors said he had also recently gone through a divorce.

That same month, a couple from Prineville, Ore., decided to quietly end their lives days before they were to be evicted from their home. When police arrived, they found Raymond and Deanna Donaca and their two dogs dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The couple had closed off all the doors in their home except for the garage and left their car running, according to a USA Today report.

Woman's Suicide Attempt Moved Mortgage Company

"We all seek understandable reasons for that kind of behavior," Conwell said, but he added that he believes trying to find a cause can lead to a misunderstanding about suicide. "To say that somebody kills themselves because of their financial stress is going to be a gross oversimplification"

According to Conwell, many people who commit suicide come to their decision based on a variety of factors that coalesce -- psychiatric illness, substance abuse, medical illness or an inability to deal with stress.

"People don't kill themselves for one reason," Conwell said.

Yet stories of suicides during recessions abound. One woman's attempted suicide was so clearly tied to the mortgage crisis that her mortgage finance company decided to let her keep her home.

Addie Polk, of Akron, Ohio, shot herself through the chest in her upstairs bedroom as sheriffs came to evict her Oct. 1. The 90-year-old woman survived the wound and was later mentioned by Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, before Congress voted on the first version of the $700 billion financial rescue package.

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