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Suicides following financial collapse

In his classic examination of the 1929 Wall Street crash John Galbraith disabuses us of a widely held notion:

In the week or so following Black Thursday, the London penny press told delightedly of the scenes in downtown New York. Speculators were hurling themselves from windows; pedestrians picked their ways delicately between the bodies of fallen financiers.

In the United States the suicide wave that followed the stock market crash is part of the legend of 1929. In fact there was none. For several years before 1929 the suicide rate had been gradually rising. It continued to increase in that year, with a further and much sharper increase in 1930, 1931 and 1932 – years when there were many things besides the stock market to cause people to conclude that life was no longer worth living (chapter 8).

Galbraith goes on to say that in the two months following the crash the number of suicides in New York were actually comparatively low. There were in fact only two suicides on Wall Street, but these were undoubtedly dramatic. On Nov. 5, Hulda Borowski, a clerk who had been working at a Wall Street stock brokerage house for 28 years, leapt off a 40-story building; on November 16, three days after the market had taken another dive, G.E. Cutler, the head of a produce firm, climbed onto the ledge of his lawyer’s office and similarly plunged to this death.

Thankfully you can’t open the windows on tall buildings these days.

On the day Lehman Brothers was wound up I took a bus through the city and looked up once or twice from my book to see if there was anyone standing on any ledges. To my relief there was no one to be seen. Although vast sums of money have been lost, the crisis we are currently experiencing is nothing like as severe as the 1929 crash. Furthermore, thinking more broadly, predicting suicide is difficult; especially at the primary care level as depressive symptoms are common, but suicide rare. In 1998 Jenkins contended that in the UK every week 10% of 16-65 year olds report suicide depressive symptoms and 1% admits suicidal ideation, but set against this, only 0.01% will kill themselves. Previous attempts and self harm are risk factors for subsequent successful attempts; around a quarter of suicides are preceded by non-fatal self harm in the previous year (Owens and House 1994) and suicide incidence in those who have committed recent non fatal self harm is 1 in 100 over the next year, rising to 1 in 15 during 9 or more years.

The BBC has an interview with the grandson of a man who killed himself during the crash

There is one report of a banker taking his life.

Wall Street Suicides Slate

Time Magazine 80 days that changed the world – 1929

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  1. Please see your post of October 20th, 2008 and my comments.

    The (ex) investment bank that you talk about in this post was my biggest client…. and one week later, my lovely city legal practice became so interested in my health that I’m no longer working there but still getting paid.


    So…. my view on mental health issues and working??? Probably a lot of the larger companies have purged the poor souls by the time they get far enough to bump themselves off.

    Sorry to be a bore, but I know I’m not the only one. The worst thing? I take my medicine and I’m fine. The suggestion is enough.

  2. I seem to recall that middle-aged men who get made redundant with little hope of re-employment are at high risk of suicide, regardless of industry. Just because these blokes have more cash doesn’t make them immune. Actually, it makes it worse I think because of the careercareercareer focus.

    I work in the City. I’ve dealt with the “does my job define my existence” existential crisis thing about a year ago when I had to take a few months off to be mad, and now I don’t think it would trigger a depressive episode if I got my P45 (distinct possibility some time in the next 2 years). At first though, when I thought, what if I don’t get better and go back to work, what then? I’m nothing, I have no worth, work is all I’m good for etc etc as I had followed the route of dealing with no self-esteem by being really really driven at work. That’s no longer a problem, but as a woman, society does not expect me to be earning large amounts of money anyway.

    When you define your self-worth in terms of your career and earning potential, to have it suddenly disappear, after years of saying “all this hard work is worth it because of the dosh I bring home” I think there’s a real problem. The world is also unkind to men who decide they don’t, in fact, want to have a massive career and earn a fortune. Plus the pressure there appears to be on males in the City to earn money where zeros on payslip = your personal moral worth as a macho masculine John Wayne bloke image (it seems to be the equivalent of women obsessing about their weight?) – I can see that sudden pulling out of the rug being really destabilising.

    There is sod-all available in terms of new jobs for most of those being made redundant right now. And the more they earned, the fewer places there are for them. That’s the problem: when the City is doing well, all the banks recruit at once. When it’s doing badly, they all lay people off at once. A very risky industry to work in. There will be suicides, as in the former pit towns, but after a year or two of redundancy, in my view.

    My English teacher at school would tell me off for the length of the above sentences.

  3. I was going to post a thoughtful and insightful commentary on suicide – but DeeDee reads this so my cover is blown already.
    (Incidentally – is it just me or is there a phenomenon of ‘pleasant familiarity’ alike meeting an unexpected friend in a pub – or seeing a ‘friendly face’, when you chance across a ‘fellow blogger’ acquaintance?)

    So getting back to my insightful post – I’ve recently posted about the same issue on Mental Nurse (and I don’t normally link as it’s too close to ‘spamming’ to promote ones own posted opinions – but I have on this occasion)

    I’m fascinated by the implications of Durkheim’s suicide theories which lend themselves to further analysis on why people become suicidal.

    In the context of market crashes (and perhaps similar to the farmers in drought of Australia) there is a loss of your identity and relationship with everything you’ve come to believe in. As DeeDee suggests – does my job define me? Anyone holding that belief is sure to lose a lot if they lose security in their job. Much the same social status – depending on where you vest you values and how important you make them – it is not so much the person who becomes suicidal but the circumstances in which suicide becomes an/the option, founded in the values of that person.
    So, and in recognition of Durkheim’s empirical research on suicide in social groups – there is tendency of some groups to hold some values in such high esteem that to “fail” in them is to ostracise you, or to feel ostracised, from the group.

    Either that – or the media were just so annoyed they invented the ‘suicidal banker’ as subliminal thought projection in a hope it might catch on?

  4. Mr Ian – I think it comes from the popular history of the 1929 crash where bankers were said to jump from windows all over lower Manhattan.

    Certainly the popular press have cast the bankers as villains. They didn’t complain while the obscene quantities of cash pulled in by the City constituted between 15-20% of GDP though, over the past decade or so. Which makes me unwilling to point any fingers.

    As you can see I have nothing better to do other than be all over t’interweb πŸ™‚ . But I do need to go feed some cats now πŸ™‚ .

  5. Know what you mean about looking out for jumpers. I’ve been interested to see what I’d come across as a result of economic circumstances, being a paramedic working west end and occasionally the city.

    so far the most pertinent tale would be the 50-something-year-old male at the Houses of Parliament who worked in the financial sector in one of the smaller towns in Scotland, who’d come down to lobby his MP regarding the current situation.

    on questioning, we found out that the day before he’d taken 40 paracetomol washed down by a bottle of Southern Comfort.

    he didn’t look good at all – my crewmate and i decided not to point out exactly how much damage he’d done to his liver..

  6. I can’t help wondering how many people not employed within the financial sector have committed suicide as a result of the effects unscrupulous banking practices. A whole lot more, I’d guess.

    There is a large minority (at the very least) who, in their work and home life, act according to the dictates of their conscience. Conversely, there are those who seem too easily satisfied that, if they act like “good people” at home, they have license to substitute greed (or other such nefarious motives) in place of their usual morality because “it’s the nature of the job” – a little like “I was only obeying orders”. They appear to have dispensed with the balance of freedom and responsibility – particularly in the case of bankers, to whom I would suggest that guilt, whilst even unacknowledged, can have a significant impact on one’s state of mind. Just like sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, sometimes if people act like villains (even if only at work) they will be vilified as such.

    Sure, depression cannot be taken lightly (and undoubtedly need to be assessed on an individual basis – I’ve had my share of visits from the black dog too) but I see it as being as much a result of a dysfunctional element of our culture and society. Perhaps if, in our work as well as in our personal dealings, we all acted with a little more humanity (instead of hiding behind the facelessness of corporate machines) then this topic might not have arisen.

  7. This is sad. Banking is a rough profession.

    I think the key to avoiding these kinds of situations (as an employer) is to provide lots of opportunities for getaways, particularly when you work your associates 80 hours per week.

    I think it would be interesting to see how many of these suicides are at the bottom level, the mid-level, and so forth. I’d bet that the pressure of 80 and 90 hour weeks doesn’t help.


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    Suicides following financial collapse