Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 5:51 am | Fair 55º


Russell Collins: Troubled Times Need Not Breed Suicidal Thoughts

The personal despair that may lead some to thoughts of suicide can be eased by examining how our brains process stress

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ignited a firestorm last week when he said that the corporate chieftains who created the financial mess should “resign or commit suicide.’’ Is a banker-suicide epidemic imminent? I don’t think so, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that we know more about suicidal shame than we did in the past, including the kind that accompanies high-profile financial disaster.

Russell Collins
Russell Collins

“Cliff” (who requested anonymity for this story*) was a retirement-aged guy who’d made a lot of money as an investment adviser to wealthy out-of-town clients. He began therapy just as the economy started to unravel, and he was anxious; his clients were counting on him to produce the same high returns, no matter what the markets did. In our first session together, Cliff told me he wouldn’t be able to bear it if he had steered them down the wrong path. I pointed out that that this could easily happen, since no one has a crystal ball. Cliff didn’t answer; he just buried his face in his hands and sat in silence for awhile. “I’m scared,” he said.

Things did get worse, of course. The markets continued down. His clients forgot about the money he had made for them over the years. They blamed Cliff as their losses piled up. Some of them left. Cliff’s own finances took a nosedive, too. A tipping point came when he decided to sell his treasured silver Mercedes-Benz in order to meet the monthly bills. The loss of the car triggered something deep in Cliff: a shift from anxiety into panic and despair.

In my office one day, Cliff said he just couldn’t go on in the face of these failures. I asked him if he had thought about killing himself. I’d been checking in with Cliff about suicide since the beginning, but he had been holding onto some optimism about the economy. “It’s got to turn around soon, doesn’t it?” Now, it was pretty clear the downward spiral was accelerating. Feeling hopeless and exhausted, Cliff confessed he had thought about suicide as an escape from the failures of his life. “Fortunately, or unfortunately,” he added, “I’ve got a wife and three kids I just can’t abandon.”

Cliff was echoing a somewhat common theme among high-status men who consider suicide: the intense drive to escape humiliation after a high-visibility failure. The Japanese seppuku practice that Grassley referred to is an institutionalized expression of the same drive. While Grassley was probably ill-informed about seppuku in present-day Japan, there is some good research supporting the idea that high-status people who experience a loss of job, income or marriage have a somewhat higher risk of committing suicide; the public failure is so shameful that it makes life not worth living.

Obviously, this extreme level of shame is not related to the actual danger in someone’s environment. Instead, it’s often grounded in memories of childhood dangers that just don’t apply anymore. Cliff worked mostly with wealthy clients who still had plenty left to pay the mortgage, despite taking a loss with Cliff. And Cliff’s own family wasn’t in danger of starving either, or even losing the house. There was no real survival threat to Cliff or his family.  As we talked about these things in therapy, it became clear that something else stirring beneath the surface was causing the terror.

Early in our work together, Cliff had talked of the financial devastation visited upon his parents when he was in second grade. Then one day he came to his session with the missing link: a distinct memory of waking one morning to find the car missing from the driveway. It had been repossessed, with devastating effects on his parents. Cliff remembered his mother’s frenzy and his father’s tears at the discovery, and the family’s upheaval soon after, as they moved from their home to a small apartment across town. And the cruelty of his schoolmates who had heard of the repossession and teased him mercilessly.

Working through these old memories and fears, Cliff came to understand the source of his terror. More important, he began to feel there was something fundamentally wrong with a system — a personal value system or a social system — that treasured success and its symbols over the moment-to-moment experience of life and family: the ordinary pleasures of the sunset, a steaming cup of coffee with his wife in the morning, a game of basketball with his three boys.

This discovery was more than a cliché for Cliff; it was a fundamental restructuring of his thinking and his experience. It turned his focus from future to present; from the external locus of others’ opinions and judgments, to the internal experience of his body and his emotional life. Even his embarrassment and shame became an object of focus: by tuning-in to the experience of shame in his body, and his automatic, self-critical mantras of “should of,” “would of” and “could of,’’ Cliff illuminated the whole neurotic illusion that happiness could be achieved by whipping himself into a narcissistic frenzy of work and overachieving and success. He learned to relax a little, and just let life unfold.

Cliff still works hard at his investment business — but not quite so hard. He finds time for his kids. He still sometimes wakes up at night in a panic over his clients, but he has ways to soothe this fear, and he’s working on seeing the judgment of clients as something survivable. He’s also learned to temper his clients’ expectations for his results. He has no serious thoughts of suicide, because it is no longer relevant to his experience of life. He’s returned to a place of relative sanity, and he can now laugh in our sessions when he asks, “It’s got to turn around soon, doesn’t it?”

A final caveat for anyone with a relative or friend who talks about suicide: take them seriously. Even threats made for impact or to elicit sympathy can result in disaster. Santa Barbara has a 24-hour helpline that can be reached by dialing 2-1-1. If you’re ever in doubt, dial it ... that’s why it’s there.

*Names and some details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

— Russell Collins is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Supporter

Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >