Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

'Econocide' to surge as recession bites

By Claire Prentice
Manhattan, New York

Depressed man
Economic hardship can push people over the edge

It is the most iconic image of the 1929 Wall Street Crash: financiers, having lost their fortunes, jumping to their deaths from the windows of skyscrapers.

Now, 80 years later, American psychologists have coined the phrase "econocide" to describe a wave of suicides they say is linked to the current global economic crisis.

The suicides of Irish property baron Patrick Rocca, London-based financier Kirk Stephenson, Chicago real estate mogul Steven Good, French financier Rene-Thierry Magnon de la Villehuchet and German billionaire Adolf Merckle have all made headlines around the world in recent months.

All were successful men who had lost large sums of money as a result of the worldwide economic downtown.

But it is not just high-profile financiers who are paying for the recession with their lives.

Last month, former British soldier Bill Foxton killed himself after losing his life savings in an alleged $50bn fraud run by Wall Street financier Bernard Madoff.

"People think econocide is a problem on Wall Street but it is also affecting people on Main Street, ordinary families who have lost their homes, their jobs, their savings," says Dr Leslie Seppinni, who has treated 14 people with suicidal feelings related to the economy in the last two months.

"I've seen people who are still going out every morning, pretending to go to work, because they can't face telling their family they've lost their job," she says.

Getting worse

The California-based psychologist has been asked by a number of corporations to provide counselling to employees during the redundancy process.

1929 newspaper
During the Great Depression, suicide rose by more than 50%, to 17.5 per 100,000 of the population
Dr Alan Berman of the American Association of Suicidology

"I've never seen anything like this before," Dr Seppinni says.

"People are suffering severe depressive symptoms who have never had experience of mental illness.

"It is going to get worse before it gets better."

The problem is not confined to California. In clinics across America, psychologists are experiencing a surge in new clients.

In the UK, meanwhile, research shows that people who are unemployed are two to three times more likely to die by suicide than people in employment.

And the charity The Samaritans has warned that the deepening economic crisis could lead to an increase in suicide rates nationwide as people face unemployment, mounting debt and housing insecurity.

Recession suicides

US employers cut almost 600,000 jobs in January, sending the unemployment rate to 7.6%, the highest in 17 years.

Man reflected in a share prices board in Tokyo
The identity of these people is so tied into their career that when it's gone they don't know who they are anymore
Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert

The rise is mirrored around the globe, with the European Commission predicting 3.5 million job losses in the European Union this year.

"Economic recession, especially when it is sudden and severe, can lead to an increase in suicide rates," observes Stephen Platt, professor of health policy research at the University of Edinburgh and a Samaritans Trustee.

"This is not only because more people become unemployed and, as a result, more psychologically vulnerable, but also because those in employment feel threatened too."

Dr Alan Berman of the American Association of Suicidology agrees with Professor Platt's assessment.

"If the current recession lasts as long as the experts are predicting we expect we will see something parallel to the Great Depression," he predicts.

"During the Great Depression, suicide rose by more than 50%, to 17.5 per 100,000 of the population."

'The only option'

Psychologists identify shame, embarrassment and feelings of powerlessness as the triggers that lead some victims of the recession to kill themselves.

Depressed woman
Downturns spark depression, yet booms do not create happiness

Jonathan Alpert is a Manhattan psychotherapist who has counselled a number of Wall Street financiers.

"The identity of these people is so tied into their career that when it's gone they don't know who they are anymore," he says.

"These are high achievers, high earners, 'Alpha Male' types who have a good education, a good career, a high standard of living and suddenly it disappears on them and they have to re-evaluate everything."

Financier John Stevens [not his real name] says he was having suicidal feelings after learning that his savings had been wiped out.

"Since I lost my job, I feel worthless," he says.

"I've had some very low points where killing myself seemed like the only option, the only way to stop that sense of desperation."

For Mr Stevens, it was the thought of leaving his wife and two young children behind that prevented him from taking his own life.

Depressing evidence

As well as an increase in suicides, international research shows that recession is accompanied by an increase in rates of domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse and divorce as financial pressures put a strain on other aspects of peoples' lives.

But if financial disaster brings emotional distress to many, sadly the opposite is not the case.

Evidence gathered in boom times does not show that prosperity causes an equivalent high in people's moods.

Simply put, poverty might bring sadness, but money cannot buy you happiness.

In America the situation is compounded by the fact that when people lose their jobs they often lose their medical insurance and their access to healthcare, including mental health benefits.

At the same time, public mental health resources are strained as cash-strapped authorities cut budgets.

Talk about it

But catastrophic economic news does not necessarily have to lead to suicidal thoughts.

Amy James is the chief executive officer of Six Things, an Oklahoma City-based company which monitors educational materials for compliance with federal regulations.

Since last September she has laid off 75% of her staff and she has seen the value of her company plummet.

"It's been devastating," she says.

"Overnight I went from being [chief executive] of a successful company to standing in a batting cage trying to fend off balls."

Ms James credits a support network of good friends and regular exercise with helping her get through it.

"I've seen a big difference between the way I've handled things and the way my male peers do," she says.

"A lot of them are too proud to talk about it, whereas I have talked non-stop about what's happened and I think that's been really healthy for me."

Back to basics

But while the economic crisis spells disaster for some, others believe it is also important to realise that it can offer an opportunity to re-evaluate what is important, turning to simple pleasures, such as cooking instead of dining out, holidaying at home rather than abroad and taking up inexpensive hobbies.

"We are all conscious that the world went a bit overboard [during the boom years] and that some values were lost," reflects Michel Taride, president of Hertz Europe, the car hire firm.

"We're now getting back to some real values."

Mr Alpert, the Manhattan psychotherapist, agrees. "There is a silver lining. People who were working long hours may find they now have time to visit the park or take their kids swimming.

"Some people take pleasure in going back to basics, to a more simple life, doing meaningful things together rather than material pursuits."

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