NEW YORK (Reuters) - High-profile suicides like that of the finance chief at embattled Freddie Mac highlight the dangers that an economic crisis poses to the powerful as well as the vulnerable, experts say.
The fear of losing a powerful job, battling to keep a company afloat or working long hours with no help are taking a heavy toll on people at the heart of the recession, they say.
David Kellermann, named acting chief financial officer at Freddie Mac after more than 16 years at the mortgage finance company, was found hanging in the basement of his Virginia home last week.
Friends said he had been working long hours after the U.S. housing market crashed and the mortgage giant was taken over by the government last year.
Kellermann’s story typifies the experiences of many in the troubled financial world, said Dr. Shelley Reciniello, a psychologist experienced in counseling Wall Street executives.
“Their worlds are basically crumbling,” she said. “Everything that they had hoped for and really seemed within their grasp over the last 20 years or so is ending.”
At the heart of it, she said, “there’s a disparity between who you want to be, who you thought you were and who people are telling you are today, and that hurts like hell.”
Reciniello said she and her colleagues are hearing of suicides on Wall Street that are not getting much attention.
“Absolutely, there’s a lot of this agony going on,” she said. “People are very vulnerable.”
There have been several high-profile suicides of business executives in recent months as the financial crisis took hold.
German billionaire businessman Adolf Merckle killed himself in January after heavy stock market losses, and Frenchman Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, co-founder of money manager Access International, was found dead in December, reportedly distraught over losing up to $1.4 billion in client money to Bernard Madoff’s fraud.
It is too soon for this recession to show statistical evidence of a rise in suicides, but suicide has not typically been a symptom of past recessions, said Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
High-profile cases get so much attention “that it appears that something is going on but that may not be so,” said Berman.
On average the annual U.S. suicide rate is 11 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the AAS.
During the Great Depression, however, the rate of suicide peaked at more than 17 suicides per 100,000 in 1933, a year after the U.S. unemployment rate hit 25 percent, it said.
A Wall Street suicide evokes the image of a magnate leaping from a skyscraper window, but the real correlation comes between unemployment and suicide, Berman said.
Unemployed people have two to four times the suicide rate of those who are employed, the AAS said.
Experts caution that suicides tend to be related to underlying or pre-existing conditions, particularly depression.
Cases such as Kellermann’s can illustrate how hard it is to reveal weakness, said Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in stress issues.
“Maybe you don’t want to show that a job is overwhelming or that there’s too much stress in it because that shows that maybe you can’t do the job,” he said.
Just before he died, Kellermann, 41, reportedly sought time off, saying he was feeling stressed and overworked.
“That’s a pretty common warning sign,” said Reciniello. “It’s like going though a pile of rubble after a tornado. What you’re seeing is a last-ditch effort.”
Editing by Mark Egan and Xavier Briand