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