There's no telling whether more people are killing themselves these days because of the financial meltdown, but you can be sure that any prominent executive who takes his own life is getting lots of attention. Today, there are two such stories. Chicago real-estate executive Steven Good was found dead in his Jaguar of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound; and German billionaire Adolf Merckle was hit by a train near the town of Blaubeuren (he left behind a suicide note).
As to why these successful businessmen would take such a drastic step - well, who really knows? Good was CEO of one of the nation's largest real-estate auction firms - and those companies can do well in downturns (though he did say in a press release last month that market conditions were "very challenging."). Merkle's problems were more visible; his empire was rocked by wrong way bets in Volkswagen (stock price crashed when short sellers scrambled to cover their positions). Banking sources had told Reuters that the family lost about 400 million euros on Volkswagen shares alone. In 2008 Merckle was ranked as the world's 94th-richest person by Forbes. Here are stories from the Chicago Tribune and Reuters.
Back in the 1990s, when Japan was mired in a terrible economic downturn, there was an increase in the number of suicides. From the NYT in 1999:
A total of 32,863 people committed suicide in 1998, both the largest number and the highest rate of suicide recorded since the police began keeping records in 1947. ''I don't recall anything like this ever before,'' said Yukiko Nishihara, who has run a suicide prevention line for more than 20 years in Osaka and now Tokyo. Suicide in Japan has little of the stigma it carries in Western societies; in literature, history and even today, suicides are often portrayed as noble, a matter of conscience or an honorable form of protest. The rate of suicide in the United States in 1997 was 11.4 per 100,000, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared with 19.3 per 100,000 in Japan.
The shame associated with not having a job is immense, overwhelming and much understood by senior executives, who feel bullied by foreign investors and analysts pushing them to move more aggressively to cut jobs. ''Of course there is a relationship between restructuring and suicide,'' said Atsushi Murayama, the managing director in charge of personnel at the Matsushita Electric Industrial Company and one of the few Japanese executives who has spoken openly, if reluctantly, about the problem. ''Foreign analysts and the foreign press also have responsibility, too.''