Monday, November 24, 2008

Stock Market Suicides: Update

Will a rash of copycat suicides occur because of graphic wall-to-wall media coverage of future "celebrity suicides" linked to stock market collapses?

Reporter Kyle Martin surveyed this blog, The Copycat Effect, and interviewed me for Sunday's article in Hernando Today, a publication of The Tampa Tribune to attempt to answer this question.

Link Is Shaky Between Suicide And Economy
by Kyle Martin
Hernando Today
November 23, 2008

It's the kind of water cooler theory that has just enough credibility to sound plausible.

As the economy continues to post record losses, it's generally accepted that more people will commit suicide as their 401ks evaporate and unemployment rises.

After all, brokers jumped from windows during the market crash of 1929, right?

Well, yes and no.

Like many rumors, it's necessary to sift through the fiction to find the nuggets of truth that are often the genesis of these stories. First, take a look at the numbers.

Records from the medical examiner's office show there were 20 suicides in Hernando County in 2007. Through Oct. 31 of this year, there were 26.

Without examining each case specifically, there's no way to extrapolate that the deaths were specifically linked to an ailing economy. That leaves anecdotal evidence.

Darlene Linville, president of Hernando County's chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, doesn't overrule the possibility that the economy played a part in recent suicides.

"I think it's pretty obvious that there will be some kind of link," Linville said, but she cautioned that it's hard to determine exactly how far that link extends.

There's global evidence to consider. On Monday, a Brazilian trader in the open outcry pit of Sao Paulo's commodities exchange shot himself in the chest, according to media reports.

In Calcutta, India, a man hanged himself on Nov. 15 with his wife's sari after losing a large amount on the stocks exchange. Also this month, a London investment-fund executive stepped in front of a train in what the local press called the "first City suicide of the credit crunch."

So what about the crash of 1929? Stories of citizens who had lost their fortunes plummeting to their death are exactly that - stories. Between Oct. 24, or "Black Thursday," and the end of the year only four of the 100 suicides or attempted suicides were linked to the crash, according to a contemporary New York Times account.

It seems there were two grisly jumps on Wall Street that kept the myth going, along with quips about hotels asking if their guests wanted their room for "sleeping or jumping."

Investors have since learned to diversify their portfolios so that a stock market crash does not wipe out their entire fortune, as frequently happened in 1929.

Linville said people with existing mental illnesses are particularly susceptible to suicide, especially people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. But even mentally healthy people can be overwhelmed by a "life stressor," she said.

The economy is one of many stressors that can that lead to suicide, said Tricia Wilmouth, a psychologist with a practice on Citrus Way. But she adds that it's certainly something to be considered.

"People are losing everything, their homes, jobs and retirement," she said. "They're back at ground zero."

Then again, consider that veterans returning from war also have higher than average suicide rates, she said.

Historical studies show that suicides actually decrease during times of national economic and emotional stress, said Loren Coleman, author of the "Copycat Effect."

Coleman's research focuses on the perpetuation of violent acts and suicides, called the copycat effect. School shootings are a classic example of students mimicking their peers.

This cycle has grown stronger with the advent of cable news networks and the Internet, which can keep a story alive for longer periods, Coleman said.

Lately the media has been preoccupied with post-election coverage. But if they start reporting on suicides and the economy then the copycat effect will kick in and it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy, Coleman said.

The same could happen if a major CEO decides to kill himself in a graphic fashion, he added.

When evaluating rumors, "look for trends and rates, as opposed to anecdotal (evidence)," he said.

Although not everyone is on the brink of suicide, the tough times are impacting people in different ways. The amount of people suffering is piquing the collective conscience, said Wilmouth, citing a term coined by psychology pioneer Carl Jung.

That empathy on an unconscious level for the less fortunate is sparking more small acts of kindness, Wilmouth said. She attributes that to people feeling lucky and blessed, but also a touch of guilt.

Wilmouth has also noticed that many people in these tough times are reverting back to their most recent bad habit.

"Everyone is trying to find a moment of peace and serenity and it's real hard to find these days," Wilmouth said.

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