COMMENTARY Recession related suicides skyrocket in Houston, Texas

HOUSTON – An article in the Houston Chronicle recently documents a dramatic jump in suicides in Houston since the onset of the recession. It points out that many suicides are directly related to the loss of jobs and property as a result of the economic crisis. Total number of suicides in Harris County jumped from 364 in 2004 to 455 in 2008.

Crisis Intervention of Houston received 60 calls from people with financial problems in September, 2007 as compared with 292 in June, 2009.

Suicides in Houston increased by more than 25% between 2006 and 2008, according to the article based on records from the medical examiner’s office.

These needless suicides parallel the suicides which occurred in the 20s and 30s following the stock market crash and subsequent massive unemployment.

It should be pointed out that Texas Governor Rick Perry recently declined to accept federal money to boost the Unemployment Insurance in this state available to people who have lost their jobs.

The Chronicle article quotes Dr. Alicia Vittone, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and director of the Mental Sciences Institutes Adult Outpatient Clinic, as saying, “We are seeing lots of patients who have worsening symptoms because of the economy. Mental illnesses worsen during economic crises, and so do addiction illnesses.”

The article examines the case of Gloria Veedell of Houston who lost her husband of 36 years and her stepson to suicide just two weeks apart. Her 71-year old husband was an on-site salesman for a home builder who was mourning the death of his son. He was experiencing extreme stress at work when he fatally shot himself. Mrs. Veedell blames her husband’s death “100 percent” on the economy. He had worked in the housing sales industry for 30 years and wrote a book in 2007 “Birth of a salesman: From stitches to sticks and bricks.”

Mental health professionals know the importance of economic well being to many people’s sense of self-worth. It is really tragic when people see themselves as isolated individuals disconnected from the community. They lose sight of the fact that their personal financial crisis is interconnected to the overall economic crisis. As a result, they view themselves as failures when in fact it is the economic system that has failed them.

Indeed, I have seen a dramatic increase in people seeking services in my practice who are experiencing personal financial crises as a result of layoffs and lack of a social safety net.

Some people have recognized that these casualties of the class struggle should not have to die in vain. Capitalism can be lethal to working people. Deaths of workers occur due to poor safety standards at work, suicides as a response to personal financial crisis and lack of the availability of mental health care. Health care reform will help, but massive educational efforts are needed so that people gain a new perspective.

James Thompson is a psychologist in Texas