Foreclosure-Related Suicide: Sign of the Times?

A Massachusetts woman committed suicide hours before her house went to auction.


July 25, 2008— -- "By the time you foreclose on my house, I'll be dead."

So read the note that 53-year-old Carlene Balderrama of Taunton, Mass., faxed to her mortgage company, according to Taunton Police Chief Raymond O'Berg.

The message turned out to be tragically prophetic. According to local reports, PHH Mortgage Corp. -- the company foreclosing on Balderrama's home -- notified police of the message less than an hour and a half before the home was to go on the auction block. By the time officers arrived at Balderrama's house, they found she had fatally shot herself with her husband's rifle.

O'Berg said Balderrama's death has been officially ruled a suicide. But though the case is closed, he notes that the tragedy underscores a problem that is affecting many in the community of about 60,000, which lies roughly 40 miles south of Boston.

"It has a lot of people talking, because there are a lot of homes in foreclosure here," O'Berg told "It's just a tragedy. Then again, someone told me that these financial stresses are tough."

And with no end in sight to the country's economic downturn, some psychological experts say that cases like these may become more common.

"Stress is a huge factor in suicide, and looming very large is stress related to the economy," said Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chairman of psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"Suicide is certainly a response to hard economic times," noted Dr. Harold Koenig, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. "Consider what happened when the stock market fell in 1929. There was a rash of suicides."

According to the RealtyTrac Monthly U.S. Foreclosure Market Report released Friday morning, the number of U.S. homes receiving a foreclosure notice between April and June of this year shot up 121 percent compared with the same period last year. That means that 739,000 households received a foreclosure notice during this three-month period -- which translates into one out of every 171 households in the country.

In Massachusetts, there were 16,173 such households that, like the Balderramas, faced foreclosure.

Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine, said such financial stresses come attached with significant psychological consequences.

"There is no question that the economic downturn in our country is causing havoc with people's mental health," she noted. "It is very depressing to lose one's home. It represents loss of stability, a feeling of failure. ... It is scary and overwhelming."

Dr. Bruce Cohen, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and psychiatrist-in-chief of Boston's McLean Hospital, agreed.

"Loss of a home ranks with loss of a close loved one and loss of a job as among the top causes of extreme stress and despair for people," he said.

But for one reason or another, it appeared that Carlene Balderrama decided to deal with the family's flagging finances on her own. O'Berg said that according to Balderrama's husband, John, Carlene handled all of the family's financial matters.

"I had no clue," John Balderrama told The Associated Press on Wednesday, adding that Carlene had hidden from him the fact that she hadn't paid the mortgage in 42 months.

However, Nemeroff said such behavior may be more common than most would think.

"In many cases, folks have family who would help if they reached out and asked, but they are too embarrassed about it," he said.

For most, Nemeroff says, economic woes alone are seldom enough to tip the scales toward suicide. Rather, for some they could be a last straw -- the final huge problem that pushes them over the edge.

Still, there are many for whom the falling economy could conspire with existing psychological problems and stresses. Nemeroff worried that this, combined with the growing problem of suicide in veterans of the war in Iraq, could be enough to create a spike the past few years' relatively stable suicide rates.

In 2005, the most recent year for which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently has suicide statistics, 32,637 Americans took their own lives. In 2004, the number was 32,439, and in 2003 it was 31,484.

But he noted that for those willing to look beyond suicide, there may be another way out of the crisis.

"As long as you have your health, there is always a way out," he said. "Maybe you have to file for bankruptcy, and that happens. Maybe it means that you have to apply for food stamps, or that you have to look among your family for help.

"Once you find out that foreclosure is not a sign of personal failure, that it is not anything that is happening to nobody else ... there's hope."

O'Berg, however, said he feels mortgage lenders also have a part to play.

"The banks got us into this mess," he said. "They should be working with people to help get them out of it."

Associated Press reports contributed to this story.