By Jennifer Pifer-Bixler
CNN Medical Senior Producer
January 14, 2009
(CNN) -- As Steven L. Good's family tries to make sense of his death, notes of condolence come pouring in.
"He was always smiling, and very proud of his family and his accomplishments," says one acquaintance.
"Steve's 'larger than life' personality left a lasting impression on me," says another. "I will miss him, as will the entire real estate industry."
Last week, Good's body was found in his car at a wildlife preserve in Kane County, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Police believe he shot himself.
Good was the chairman and chief executive officer of Sheldon Good & Co., a major real estate auction company in the United States. His death stunned the real estate community.
"The guy was just very positive, always smiling, always telling you a story," says Barbara Matthopoulos, the Chicago Association of Realtors spokeswoman. "Everyone is really very shocked."
Good's death is the latest apparent high-profile suicide in the international business community in recent months. On the same day that Good's body was discovered, German billionaire Adolf Merckle, 74, killed himself by walking in front of a train. In 2008, he was ranked the 94th richest person in the world by Forbes magazine, but in recent months his empire had been near collapse.
In December, French businessman Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, 65, killed himself in his New York City office. He had lost more than $1.4 billion investing with Bernard Madoff, who has admitted losing $50 billion while running a Ponzi scheme.
And in September, English financier Kirk Stephenson, the chief operating officer of Olivant Ltd., committed suicide by jumping in front of a train. He was 47.
In light of these recent deaths, many people are wondering: Do suicide rates spike when the economy is in trouble?
Yes, say experts. "We ordinarily experience much, much higher rates of suicide during times of recession," says M. Harvey Brenner, professor of public health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 32,000 people kill themselves each year. The government doesn't keep statistics in "real time," so it's hard to tell whether the suicide rate is spiking right now. However, Brenner has crunched the numbers and thinks as many as 1,200 more suicides could happen as a result of the current recession.
There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that more people are suicidal. Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline went from 412,768 in 2007 up to 540,041 in 2008. But Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, says it's important to keep things in perspective.
"No doubt, there's one here and one there, but lots of people have been impacted seriously by economic loss -- 99.9 percent are going to cope," he says. Still, Berman acknowledges unemployed people are two to four times more likely to kill themselves than those who are employed.
According to the American Psychological Association's 2008 "Stress in America" survey, 80 percent of Americans reported in September that the economy is a significant cause of stress, up from 66 percent in April.
Psychologist Nancy Molitor practices outside Chicago. In the last few months, she's seen many of her patients go from being anxious to being downright despondent.
"It's kind of like a rat in a maze," says Molitor. "If they feel that they can't change the situation, then they start to get depressed."
Molitor says hard economic times are particularly difficult for people with Type A personalities, especially those who have never experienced failure. High-achieving men whose whole identity is wrapped up in work are particularly vulnerable.
"I am seeing it, in particular, in people who are prone to shame. They build their whole identity around being successful. If they don't have someone watching them, they are at risk," she says.
So what about these wealthy and powerful men who have recently killed themselves? Mental health experts say it's impossible to say why they did it, but they say that people who kill themselves have an underlying psychological issue, such as depression or bipolar disorder, so it's not only about the money.
But as Brenner points out, what makes this recession different is that the very wealthy -- who are generally insulated from financial worries -- have taken a huge hit, and they have further to fall.
"You would think these people have such wonderful lives," says Brenner, full of private jets, luxury homes and the best of anything that money can buy. "Yet they are capable of losing much more, because they have so much more."