Economic Depression Suicides a Myth?
Experts Say Money Trouble Is a Risk, but Each Suicide Is Far More Complicated
By LAUREN COX
ABC News Medical Unit
Oct. 14, 2008
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kaslow said it's most important to pay attention to those around you.
"People need to be sensitive to how people around them are doing," Kaslow said. "When people are talking about 'I lost all this in the market,' you've got to stop and say, 'OK, we can talk about the money part of this. ... Are you going to be OK with this?'"
According to Conwell, those who are at the highest risk for suicide don't necessarily have the most stress, but lack such emotional support in combination with their other risk factors.
"Those who are more vulnerable to suicide are also those for whom stress has a particularly devastating effect," Conwell said. "It doesn't happen out of the blue, they are vulnerable in a number of ways."
Radha Chitale contributed to this report.