In January 2009, Chicago real-estate mogul Steven Good shot himself in the front seat of his Jaguar. Within hours, Adolf Merckle, a German billionaire industrialist, threw himself in front of a train, ending his life. He had recently lost millions of Euros in Volkswagen shares, and the growing global economic crisis was only worsening his financial situation. Back in America, hospital worker Ervin Lupoe shot his five young children and his wife before turning the gun on himself. He was reportedly deep in debt, behind on his mortgage payments, and he and his wife had both recently lost their jobs.
And in South Africa in September last year a 42-year-old senior official at Investec in Johannesburg shot himself in the company’s parking lot after being unable to pay his children’s school fees.
“We’re getting a lot of calls from men,” Cassey Chambers, director of operations at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), told the Mail & Guardian.
Chambers explained that men are particularly susceptible to depression due to financial reasons because of the traditional male role as the breadwinner.
“Men don’t know who to talk to; they can’t necessarily turn to their wives because they would lose self-esteem, they would lose that role,” explained Chambers. “Men are feeling completely overwhelmed, they don’t know where to turn. And mostly counselling is not the first option they think of.”
But, said Chambers, because there are a lot of single-mother-headed households, the recession has “pretty much affected everyone across the board”.
“You’re dealing with people who have lost everything,” she added. “Their families are disintegrating, and they’re feeling both helpless and hopeless.”
Calls to Sadag’s toll-free suicide hotline have increased markedly over the last two years — quadrupling from around 100 a day to 400.
This same phenomenon has been noticed in the United States, where calls to one hotline increased from 39 000 in January 2009 to 57 000 in July, according to a report on Msnbc.com.
Richard McKeon, the lead adviser for suicide prevention for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told the website that around a third of the increase in calls were related to economic problems. However, he cautioned against oversimplifying the relationship between economic distress and suicide, saying it’s “complex”. John McIntosh, a psychology professor at Indiana University, agreed with this, adding that economic pressures just increase the pool of people vulnerable to suicide.
“Typically, a combination of conditions and events — depression combined with difficult personal relationships combined with a job loss, for instance — is what drives people to take their own lives,” read the article.
Researchers in the United Kingdom (UK) also found that suicides had increased since the recession began. Owen Bowcott reported in the Guardian earlier this year that the numbers were up 6% — from 5 377 deaths in 2007 to 5 706 in 2008, according to figures released by the UK’s Office for National Statistics. “[This] appears to reflect the strong link between economic downturn and self–harm,” Bowcott wrote. “Three times as many men as women kill themselves.”
For a country like South Africa, where unemployment is already high, the impact on people’s psychiatric well-being can be even more profound.
“When you’re sitting at home, sending out CVs all the time and never hearing anything back, or constantly being rejected, it starts to take its toll,” said Chambers. “You don’t feel productive, you don’t feel like you’re contributing to society, and this can cause depression, which, if left untreated, can have serious consequences.”
Financial and work–related stress can also negatively impact family groups.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, especially at this time of year. People are wondering if they’re still going to have a job in January,” Chambers explained. “When people are stressed at work, and working longer hours, they tend to take this out at home.”
“This could lead to a breakdown in families, an increase in separations and divorce. People aren’t communicating because they don’t know how to deal with the added stress from their jobs.”
Clinical psychologist Annette du Toit agreed with this, pointing out that when someone is directly affected by the recession, for example losing his or her job, or sinking deeper into debt, this can have a devastating ripple effect.
“Relationships take huge strain, the whole family has to make huge adjustments,” she said, adding that being retrenched or struggling financially can particularly negatively affect men.
“They feel disempowered, like they’ve lost their manhood. This can affect their sex life, their self esteem, everything.”
Although Du Toit has a private practice which mostly serves people in a higher income bracket, she says that she has seen an increase in people suffering from depression and attributing the financial situation as one of the causes.
People need to change the way they think about money, she said, not just because of the recession, although that is obviously a factor.
“There’s too much focus on external symbols of success, like the size of your house or what car you drive,” she said. “People need to go back to things like family values — things that are intangible but more meaningful.”
“It’s important to realise that external validations aren’t what’s really important.”