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Ask Dr. Helen: Suicide, Men, and Money

How do we help husbands and fathers whose financial angst has brought them to the darkest place?

by
Helen Smith

Bio

April 26, 2009 - 11:10 am

We have all heard in recent months about executives taking their lives for financial reasons. David Kellerman is an example:

Investigators say that the acting chief financial officer for Freddie Mac may have killed himself. While officials cannot confirm the reason, it may have been due to stress related to the company’s financial troubles.

In 16 years, Kellerman rose through the ranks at Freddie Mac. He capped his career by trying to untangle the company’s financial woes. But the stress may have been too much.

Kellerman, 41, was found dead in his Virginia home from an apparent suicide by hanging.

Apparently, a number of professional men are feeling the strain of the financial crisis and are opting out, sometimes taking their family with them:

Financial stress has people all over the country feeling the pressure. Police in Maryland are investigating a bizarre murder suicide. While in New York, a lawyer suspected of bilking investors out of millions reportedly killed himself, his wife and two children.

Other similar stories across the nation include a money manager who slit his wrists, a former Bear Stearns analyst who jumped out of a 29th story window and a hedge fund manager who suffocated himself. Houston is not immune to these types of suicides.

In January, a financial advisor jumped off of a downtown building, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Notice the pattern: the majority of suicides are men. In 2001, there were 24,672 men who killed themselves vs. 5,950 women. Seventy-three percent of all suicide deaths are white males. A growing trend is middle-aged men committing suicide:

Before 1999, the U.S. suicide rate had declined for 13 years. The new numbers are especially puzzling because other research has found that for most people, middle age  “is a time of relative security and emotional well-being,” Baker and her colleagues wrote in their paper. Their analysis was based on death reports compiled by an injury prevention program of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even six years of consistent increase in the suicide rate among the middle-aged is “not a long enough period of time to get terribly concerned about,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit research group based in Washington D.C. He said it can take years to identify definitive trends and causes and there was no clear reason why the suicide rate rose among the middle-aged.

Still, Berman said he fears the struggling economy could accelerate the trend.  “We know that unemployment affects suicide rates and that when people feel a severe economic strain, suicide rates tend to increase among people experiencing that strain,” he said in a telephone interview today.

I do not mean to belittle women’s depression and stress over financial problems, but men in large numbers and in a variety of jobs are bearing the brunt of unemployment. Approximately 80% of the unemployed today are men.

What does all this mean? It means that our society needs to pay more attention to the mental health of men, just as they pay attention to the needs of women. Usually, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; those who complain and make their needs known are more likely to get help. Many men have been raised and told by society that they are providers, not the ones provided for. They keep their mouths shut for the most part, lest they be tagged whiners.

Quiet men may be suffering as much as women; it’s just that no one knows it. On many occasions, men have told me their angst, and it is pretty horrible. One man, who felt he could not make it financially, told me about sitting in a football field with a revolver in his mouth. He was trembling as he tried to pull the trigger, but something pulled him back. He got professional help and is now learning that his life is worth more than a paycheck — though a paycheck is important.

Kay Redfield Jamison, in her book Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, describes the depressed thinking pattern of the suicidal:

[W]hen people are suicidal, their thinking is paralyzed, their options appear spare or nonexistent, their mood is despairing, and hopelessness permeates their entire mental domain. The future cannot be separated from the present, and the present is painful beyond solace. … People seem to be able to bear or tolerate depression as long as there is the belief that things will improve. If that belief cracks or disappears, suicide becomes the option of choice.

In order to keep someone with financial angst from committing suicide, it is important for them to have hope — the hope that their condition is not permanent, that their lives will change, and that they can come through the financial situation with their life intact. Professional help with cognitive behavioral treatment can change the thinking patterns of depressed people and has a good success rate.

But the best way to help the suicidal is to keep them from reaching that point. Keep things in perspective when it comes to money. Money is important, but it is not as important as one’s life. Do things in life that don’t cost money or that take the strain off the person feeling down about their job or earning ability. It is not your job to be the therapist of a depressed spouse or friend, but do some reality testing. If the depressed person says things are hopeless, counter with some evidence to the contrary. If other people are putting your loved one down at work, in the news, or in general, reassure them that you do not feel this way and let them know that they they are more than what other people think about them. What other people think changes with the culture. Today’s scapegoat can be tomorrow’s comeback kid. As one of my favorite bumper sticker says, “No condition is permanent.”

Drop in a comment about suicide and men or how to tackle financial angst if you have some thoughts you could share.
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If you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at askdrhelen@hotmail.com. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question — if you want me to use your name, tell me; otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as “a reader,” etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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