As economic crisis goes on, financial fears can push some over the edge

The headlines have had a similar ring: A Frederick County man underwater on his mortgage kills himself and his family. A man accused of financial improprieties does the same while staying at a Towson hotel. A top official with Freddie Mac, a company with major money woes, is found dead in an apparent suicide.

With the economic crisis showing little sign of easing - and with a known link between suicide and unemployment rates - experts warn that stressful life events such as losing a job, a home or savings can unhinge those who are vulnerable to harming themselves and others. The suicide rate, like the incidence of depression, rises when the economy falls.

"It is so regular a pattern among most of the industrialized countries of the world that it is virtually an economic indicator," said M. Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It's a standard feature of recession."

Calls to suicide help lines are up. The Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia has seen a 15 percent increase in calls this year from people who feel suicidal. In February, the center recorded a 300 percent spike over February 2008 in calls from people who said money was the main cause of their distress.

"Most folks coming in to see us these days really are at the end of the rope," said Brian Yost, director of crisis services. "We've had folks come in with $3,000 BGE bills because they've been behind six or seven months and late charges keep adding up. They don't know what they're going to do."

Yost said staff members deal first with a person's suicidal impulses. This year, the center has doubled the number of interventions, meaning an ambulance or the police had to be dispatched. But he said the center also tries to address underlying issues by making referrals to service agencies.

"What we're figuring out and what we're discovering is the financial stuff is just one more thing on the plate with everything else," said Timothy Jansen of Community Crisis Services, a nonprofit that runs three suicide hot lines in Maryland. "The challenge with it is there are so few solutions to it."

Suicide and financial strain have long been linked, at least in popular mythology. Legend has it that stockbrokers and bankers jumped to their deaths from their Wall Street windows after the Crash of 1929. It didn't happen, but the peak suicide rate on record was 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. Brenner expects that when the suicide rate for this recession is tallied, it will be high.

On Wednesday morning, David Kellermann, acting chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giant, was found dead at his Northern Virginia home in an apparent suicide.

A Hopkins study last year showed that suicide was rising among middle-class whites. Brenner says those who are well off are often those with the most to lose when their money disappears. Creature comforts, social status - it can all be tied up in their personal net worth.

Of course, few who suffer a financial trauma commit suicide or kill their families.

"Stressors don't affect everyone in the same way," said Dr. James Potash, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center. "The rain falls everywhere, but not everyone gets wet. Some people have umbrellas. Some people are more vulnerable to stressors than others."

Little quantitative research has been done on people who kill their families before killing themselves, mostly because there have been so few cases, said Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center in Washington, which has examined murder-suicides in general. But those numbers seem to be rising, she said.

Criminologist Jack Levin, who has studied mass killings for 25 years at Northeastern University in Boston, said men who kill their families and then themselves - and it is almost always men - are called "family annihilators."

Those who are not motivated by revenge may be driven by a perverse sense of altruism. They have suffered a catastrophic loss, and in hard economic times the losses can pile up fast. In this recession, Levin said, people have not only lost jobs but also much of their savings, something that may seem impossible to overcome.

"When neighbors and friends all describe the killer as a 'devoted father and dedicated husband,' that's exactly what he is," Levin said. "He feels responsible for them, and he believes this life is so miserable that they would all be better off reuniting in the hereafter. He certainly does not want to leave his family with the stigma of his own suicide or if he kills his wife, he doesn't want to leave his kids without parents."

Baltimore County police say that William Parente, a tax and estate lawyer from Long Island, N.Y., beat and asphyxiated his wife and two daughters before killing himself. On Monday, police found their bodies in their room at a Towson hotel. Federal authorities were investigating what happened to a client's $450,000 investment with Parente.

Last week, authorities say, Christopher Wood killed his wife and three young children before killing himself in their rented home in Middletown. Wood, 34, reportedly left six notes detailing his depression and his financial hardships. The family had taken out two mortgages on a home they owned in Florida, owing double the house's worth.

In January 2008, a top executive of a collapsed subprime mortgage firm based in Columbia killed his wife and then threw himself off the Delaware Memorial Bridge. Walter Buczynski was a vice president at Fieldstone Mortgage. He spared his two young children.

Most who commit suicide kill only themselves.

In February, Baltimore advertising executive Howard "Jack" Marks Jr., 63, took his own life, and his wife told police who responded to the couple's Glyndon home that financial woes had threatened to sink their firm, John Marks Associates. "They were in danger of losing the business," a Baltimore County police officer wrote in a report.

"I think he was so embarrassed by the situation that he didn't want certain people to know it," said Jon Levinson, vice president at Alex Cooper Auctioneers and a friend of Marks' for 20 years. "People could sense there were issues, but nobody knew how serious it was."

On Feb. 6, Marks and his wife, Virginia, awoke at 3 a.m. "due to the fact that they had been going through some financial issues with their business," the police report stated. Jack Marks, drinking and taking muscle relaxants, told his wife to "make sure you take credits on the television buy" - an apparent reference to their business.

About 8:15 a.m., an employee of the residence was washing a car when he saw Marks sitting on a tractor. Marks called the employee over and asked him to "take care" of his wife. Marks then drove to woods near the house and shot himself.

Coping with the strain
•Heed these warning signs that financial problems may be affecting one's emotional state: persistent sadness or crying; excessive anxiety, irritability or anger; lack of sleep or constant fatigue; increased drinking; illicit drug use, including misuse of medications; difficulty staying focused; apathy about things that usually matter; and inability to function well at work, school or home.

•Use these coping techniques to help manage stress: try to keep things in perspective, recognize what's good in life and stay hopeful; strengthen connections with family and friends who can provide emotional support; engage in activities such as exercise or hobbies; and develop new employment skills that can ease money woes.

•Seek help: Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255), or the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233) go online for "Getting Through Tough Economic Times" at www.samhsa.gov/economy.

Sources: U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, National Domestic Violence Hotline

Recommended on Baltimore Sun