Image: Philip Pagano
AP
Chicago's Metra Executive Director Philip Pagano died May 7 after stepping in front of a train in an apparent suicide.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/1/2010 7:53:36 PM ET 2010-06-01T23:53:36

Last year, Mark Levy, a 59-year-old Maryland lawyer, died of a self-inflcited gunshot wound at his office after finding out he was about to lose his job.

Phil Pagano, 60, a Chicago commuter train director being investigated for an unauthorized vacation payout, stepped out in front of an oncoming train May 7 and was killed.

And late last year, Census Bureau worker William Sparkman, 51, who was battling cancer, hanged himself while on the job after taking out two life insurance policies.

While Americans may be shocked over a string of suicides at a Chinese manufacturing facility that makes the popular iPhone and iPod, it turns out a growing number of workers right here at home are also taking their lives on the job.

“It’s a ripple effect from the economic problems we’re seeing,” said Richard Shadick, director of Pace University's Counseling Center, an adjunct professor of psychology and a suicide expert.

“It’s tearing at the very fabric of our nation, because it’s not just jobs, it’s home, it’s families,” he said. “Suicide, anxiety, depression, substance abuse are all of concern, particularly during these scary times.”

But he stressed that it may not just be the economy.

“A few different factors lead to suicide,” he said. “They may have lost health insurance and thus can’t access services they need or have had disruptions in relationships. There may also be a preceding mental health problem, and because of stress, it’s coming up again.”

Whatever the underlying causes, suicides in the workplace in 2008 were at their highest level since the government started tracking the numbers. Workplace suicides jumped 28 percent to 251 cases in 2008 — the most recent data available — up from 196 in the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

And the vast majority of suicides in the U.S. occur outside the workplace.There were 33,000 reported suicides in the U.S. in 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Workplace suicides surge
These numbers don’t even tell the whole story because they miss what happened after the economic downturn hit in late 2008.

Charles Lattarulo, clinical director for employee assistance program (EAP) provider Harris, Rothenberg International, said suicides and attempted suicides among the 2,600 organizations and 8 million employees they cover surged after December 2008.

“We used to get these types of calls once a week, maybe once every two weeks. Now we get a suicidal call every single day,” he said, and as a result he’s had to provide additional crisis management training for his staff. “Our EAP counselors have been transformed this past year from EAP counselors to crisis counselors because it’s so common now.”

Lattarulo would not disclose how many employees covered by their program have actually committed suicide, but he did say the number of suicides and attempted suicides are up 75 percent in 2009 from the previous year.

“We are seeing such a growing number of violence and danger to self and others in the workplace,” he added. “People are so much more stressed out than ever before. The increase started when the economy started tanking.”

Workers see their colleagues losing their jobs, are working longer hours, and are not taking vacations or lunches so they’re not perceived as slackers, Lattarulo said. And co-workers who were once friends and a key part of a worker's social network are now seen as competition — not just for a raise but for their livelihoods, he said.

Even minor changes in a person’s job can set people off, he added. In one case, a veteran employee who committed suicide at work did so after being assigned to a new boss because so many managers had been laid off. The veteran employee left a note expressing how the change impacted his decision to commit suicide, Lattarula said.

“We’ve had people kill themselves at work and then leave a note saying, ‘I blame the workplace,’ ” he said.

Just last week, his staff was contacted by an employer about a woman who locked herself in the bathroom and threatened to kill herself. “She was having relationship problems, couldn’t function well at work, and suddenly work gave her a bad evaluation.”

In that case, an emergency medical services unit was called in and was able to coax her out of the bathroom and take her to the hospital.

The breaking point
Making matters worse lately, Lattarulo said, are reports that the economy is finally turning around.

“The media keeps saying the economy is getting better, but that’s detrimental to people who are not feeling that,” he said. “Some are telling us, ‘My husband is still without work. ‘My job (employer) just laid off 15 more people.’ Even though there’s a feeling the economy is getting better, many are not experiencing that.”

On the flip side, persistent negative comments about the economy can also contribute to the feeling of despair among many workers, said Pace University’s Shadick,  “I think the message a lot of us are hearing is this is a once-in-a-generation economic downturn. That type of message certainly does scare people,” he said.

When people do get to the breaking point in the workplace, their means of suicide are often quite harsh. Among workplace suicide cases tracked by the Department of Labor in 2008, the most common were gunshot wounds, accounting for 130 suicides, and asphyxiations/strangulations or suffocations, accounting for 78 suicides. Gunshot wounds increased 48 percent from 2007 to 2008, according to the labor department.

And middle-aged white males are the most likely to take their own lives at work. Men committed about 95 percent of the suicides, and the highest levels were among those between the ages of 45 and 54.

“Given the unemployment numbers and all the foreclosures we’re seeing, that puts a great deal of pressure on individuals, especially men,” said Roger Hawkins, an industrial psychologist. “Even though we have dual-career families, men are often considered the main breadwinners.”

Some men “are trying to do heroic things,” he said. “They’re trying to be cool even though they’re under pressure financially and family-wise.”

The number of middle-aged individuals committing suicide has also been rising in the general population, according to Eric Caine, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Caine pointed to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers that show suicide rates among 45– to 64-year-olds hit the highest level in a decade in 2007. “Rates for the middle years now have passed rates for elders, a trend that has been coming for several years,” he said. “Overall rates are rising, carried in large measure by the middle years. Of course, those years are the ‘work force’ age.”

Warning signs
Some mental health experts are bracing for what could be a significant increase in suicides given economic conditions.

“We know with clarity that in Asia when the economy unraveled in 1997 and 1998, the (suicide) rate in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan went up dramatically,” Caine said.

Experts offer a variety of explanations for what can bring someone to the point of such desperation.

“Despair starts to set in and the world looks like a huge black hole from which it seems impossible to escape,” said Thierry Guedj, a psychology of work expert and professor at Boston University.

“What you see is that many employers are trying to do a whole lot more with less. Many employees are being pushed to the limit by their supervisors, where they cannot possibly meet the productivity targets,” he said. “So, basically, they work themselves into the ground. Tremendous anxiety sets in. Insomnia creeps up. People are in a constant state of hyper-alertness, which is very bad for their health. There’s also a rise in heart attacks and other serious medical conditions.”

Pace University’s Shadick mentioned a few suicide warning signs to watch for:

  • Persistent depression or sadness that lasts for long periods of time and impairs ability to function at work or in relationships.
  • Verbal altercations at work or home.
  • Excessive drinking.

“If you’re having thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, you should get help right away,” Shadick said.

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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