Several financiers have committed suicide this year. The New York Post counts eight and would have you believe, in an ongoing series of articles, that this constitutes a “baffling” “epidemic.” Each death is its own tragedy, not to be minimized, but the truth is that the only thing there is an ugly “spate” of is irresponsible headlines.
The Post isn’t alone in this morbid trendspotting. Reuters noted a “disturbing rash” of deaths in February. Last fall, International Business Times said suicide “appears to be on the rise” in a “cutthroat industry staffed by many of the world’s sharpest minds.”
We don’t have great statistics on suicide rates by profession, but broad measures tell us that the deaths in the finance industry this year are not higher than average. Choire Sicha at the Awl does some convincing back-of-the-envelope math here. Using statistics to come up with how many suicides “should” occur in a given demographic can seem unfeeling, but the alternative—stitching anecdotes together to support a preconceived conclusion—can be dangerous.
The Post’s coverage is the kind of hyping that some suicide researchers fear leads to more deaths. Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says she was horrified to read her quotes in reporter Michael Gray’s stories, which advanced the theory that the “very public” nature of the deaths—several have come from jumping from tall buildings—is somehow meaningful. That speculation is “sensationalized, and not grounded in what I told him,” Moutier says. “Just because they’re visible doesn’t mean the rates have changed at all.”
“It could be harmful in the sense that there is a real phenomenon of suicide contagion—one to five percent of total suicides,” Moutier adds. “Isn’t a huge proportion, but it’s a number of deaths that are actually attributed to a cluster effect.”
The Post calls it “eerie coincidence” that two of the finance industry deaths came in London. This is not eerie whatsoever. There are 1.1 million employees in the U.K. finance industry. Estimates of the suicide rate there are comparable to those in the U.S., at roughly 12 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Mythologizing banker suicide has a long history, which New York magazine’s Michael Idov compiled in early 2009, near the nadir of the financial crisis. Stockbrokers jumping out of windows because of the 1929 market crash, traders killing themselves after the collapse of their firms——“Reports of financial professionals taking their own lives after suffering steep stock-market losses are as old as trading itself,” Idov writes.
The relentless and demoralizing pressures faced by finance professionals are a genuine concern, currently being addressed by some of the nation’s largest banks. Goldman Sachs (GS), Bank of America (BAC), and others have recently told junior employees to take more time off, amid scrutiny of the punishing—some would say punitive—workloads they are expected to bear. It is a big, problematic leap to tie our reexamination of banking culture in the wake of the financial crisis to a few incidents spread around the globe.
“Anything that gets the attention of people related to suicide being a real issue, I view that as a real opportunity,” Moutier says. “But you need to meet that real opportunity with real education, and not sensationalized myths.”