Economic Depression Suicides a Myth?

Robert Dillon points to the upstairs bedroom Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008, in Akron, Ohio, where neighbor Addie Polk, age 90, is believed to have shot herself.

Upon hearing about the case in the news, Fannie Mae representatives told The Associated Press that they would dismiss the foreclosure action and forgive her mortgage.

But many thousands of American households will face the same stress as Polk.

Unknown Personal Reach of a Financial Crisis

Suicide experts say that financial stress is a well-known risk factor for suicide, but measuring exactly how much impact a widespread crisis has on the suicide rate is difficult.

"Joblessness is a risk factor for suicide," said Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. "The stress is just overwhelming. ... People are freaked out."

As for hard numbers, Kaslow said the best estimates she has found report that suicide rates went up during the Great Depression from 14 suicides a year per 100,000 people in the general population to 17 suicides per 100,000 people.

Hard Financial Times Still Hit Those at Risk

Although that's not a huge increase, Kaslow said she believes it's a strong warning signal.

"The worse this [economy] gets, the more serious this becomes," Kaslow said.

However, Conwell said he disagrees.

"It did look as if there was an increase at that point, but those kinds of temporal changes are really hard to find when you're dealing with a manner of death like suicide, which is so infrequent," he said.

While doctors continue to study the impact of economic recession on suicide, isolated stories that seem to symbolize the economic desperation continue to make headlines.

Just last week, six family members died in what police said was a financially related tragedy that made national headlines.

Karthik Rajaram of Los Angeles shot his wife, three sons and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself, police said. Rajaram, 45, once held prominent positions with the accounting firm for Sony, but he had been unemployed for several months and was facing serious financial trouble, police said.

This photo released Oct. 7, 2008, by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, shows Karthik Rajaram. The 45-year-old unemployed financial manager, despondent over extreme money problems, was found dead Monday with a gun in his hand, law enforcement officials said.

But doctors say it is a mistake to think that these murder-suicides have the same motivations as suicides.

"A murder-suicide is obviously complicated in lots of ways," said Kaslow. "It's one thing to choose to end your own life; it's another thing to choose to end other people's lives."

Kaslow said that in some murder-suicides, the perpetrators act out of concern, trying to save their loved ones from a perceived disaster. But in others, the act is a sign of vengeance.

"They can feel so ashamed," Kaslow said. When a person can no longer support his or her family, Kaslow said they may become angry and take that anger out on other people.

No matter how different, or extreme, a person's reaction to financial ruin may be, Kaslow says finding support is crucial to help deal with the stress.

"We all have to deal with stress, and the question is what coping strategies do you use to deal with stress," said Kaslow, who suggested seeking counseling, or if you can't afford it, pampering yourself and relaxing in inexpensive ways.

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