Economic Depression Suicides a Myth?
Experts say money trouble is a risk, but suicides are far more complicated.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.