Shame, not loss, prompts prominent suicides: experts

BERLIN (Reuters) - Deep feelings of shame rather than material losses were probably behind the suicide of German billionaire Adolf Merckle and some other prominent casualties of the global financial crisis, according to mental health experts.

A German police officer walks near the railway track at the site where German billionaire Adolf Merckle committed suicide the previous day near his hometown Blaubeuren, near the southern German city of Ulm January 6, 2009. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

Merckle, who threw himself in front of a train near his home on Monday in despair over huge investment losses, has joined a lengthening list of high-profile investors around the world to take their own lives.

“An industrialist losing a fortune on the stock market has different motives for killing himself than a father with six children who loses his job,” said Detlev Liepmann, professor of economic psychology at Berlin’s Free University.

“Merckle’s livelihood was certainly not threatened by his risky investments but he was threatened by shame, a loss of face in society and a loss of honor,” said Liepmann.

Before 74-year-old Merckle, who was ranked as Germany’s fifth-richest person by Forbes magazine, French money manager Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet was found dead last month in his New York office; his wrists were slit with box cutters.

The co-founder of money manager Access International was reportedly distraught about losing up to $1.4 billion in client money to Bernard Madoff’s alleged fraud.

“People like Merckle may be highly motivated but also highly sensitive,” said Gerrit Grahl, a psychotherapist in Frankfurt’s banking quarter who treats 400 patients a year -- with managers and bankers now outnumbering all professions combined.

“It’s unfortunate he killed himself because he could have been treated. Many other people in the same spot would say ‘to hell with it’. They’d look to save their own tail and wouldn’t think of killing themselves no matter what happens.”


The World Health Organization warned in October the crisis would cause increased mental health problems and suicides.

“There is clear evidence that suicide is linked to financial disasters,” WHO director general Margaret Chan said at the time. “I am not talking about the millionaire jumping out of the window but about poor people.”

Merckle did not opt for the window. Instead the media-shy billionaire, whose family controls some of Germany’s best-known companies, jumped in front of a train in the darkness near his villa in the southern town of Blaubeuren.

The train driver did not even see him. Merckle’s dismembered body was found hours later.

He had assembled a business conglomerate with about 100,000 employees and 30 billion euros ($40 billion) in annual sales.

But the empire was rocked last year by wrong-way bets made on shares in Volkswagen. Banking sources told Reuters the family lost hundreds of millions of euros on investments, with about 400 million euros lost on Volkswagen shares alone.

In an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper last month, Merckle said what pained him most “ that I’m being attacked and portrayed now as a gambler.”

Grahl, the psychotherapist, said: “Here was a man who spent a life working hard to do good but saw it all in ruins. He saw financial failure and thus felt his life was a failure. The minds of people like that recall only the negatives of their whole lives and blot out positives. They feel guilt and shame.”

There have been other suicides related to the crisis.

In London, millionaire chief operating officer of private equity firm Olivant, Kirk Stephenson, was hit by a train in London in September. A jury later returned a suicide verdict.

In Brazil, a trader shot himself at Sao Paulo’s commodities exchange in November. He survived in critical condition.

In Los Angeles, out-of-work money manager Karthik Rajaram, 45, killed himself and his family in October. Police said Rajaram had said in a suicide note he was broke and had lost most of his assets in the stock market.

Editing by Giles Elgood