Experts fear rising tide of executive suicides

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 12:00am

AFTER TWO HIGH-PROFILE boardroom suicides rocked corporate America in the past six months, the nation's suicide experts have issued a dire warning - expect more of them.

With the United States economy still hovering near recession and corporations coming under greater scrutiny in the wake of Enron's troubles, American Association of Suicidology president Dr David Rudd fears more executive suicides are inevitable.

'The reason for that is stress. Such times as these cause massive stress,' he said.

The financial community in the US, already fragile over the string of investigations it is undergoing due to accounting irregularities, was convulsed by the suicides of former Enron vice-chairman Cliff Baxter in January and then El Paso Corp's treasurer Charles Rice earlier this month.

Baxter was found shot in the head in his car near his home in Houston, Texas. Although he had resigned from Enron in May last year, he was accused of cashing in nine million shares before the company's share value plunged in the autumn.

His role in the Enron scandal, however, is little known. Although he had been the company's chief strategy officer, he was named by informer Sherron Watkins as one of the company chiefs who had clashed with former chief executive Jeff Skilling over the hiding of millions of dollars.

Rice was also found with a gunshot wound to the head in his Houston home. He had been praised for trimming the fat from El Paso's energy trading business and for implementing a new accounting and trading structure following the financial shake-up of the industry prompted by Enron's collapse. But he is believed to have been instrumental in convincing El Paso's chiefs to admit a spot of dodgy Enron-style round-trip trades by one of its subsidiaries in 2000 and last year.

The reasons for the suicides are unknown - Rice left no note and the contents of Baxter's note have been kept secret. But suicidologists have their theories.

'One way to conceptualise the reason for suicide among executives is that they essentially experience a very significant identity loss,' Dr Rudd said.

'Most literature shows that what usually triggers suicide are losses. And you can view loss in a very broad sense - loss of someone you love through death or divorce, loss of status or identity, loss of community standing.

'If executives are the head of a corporation or a division in a corporation and have a significant failure experience, that failure experience is essentially an identity loss and for some people, that kind of a loss is intolerable.'

But not as intolerable as it is for Japanese businessmen, it would seem. In the nation that regularly tops the international league for highest suicide rates - running at roughly 18 per 100,000 people in the past few years - suicide is seen as another barometer of economic performance.

The decade-long recession in Japan has also seen a rise in suicides. They peaked in 1999 at more than 33,000 - more than 80 per day and have settled at about 30,000 since, Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry studies reveal. There is no data on what percentage of that figure was accounted for by desperate executives. But in a culture where seppuku, or ritualised suicide, was revered in medieval times among the ruling elite, it can be assumed the modern day business elite make up a good proportion of those who still believe an honourable end is better than a dishonourable continuation.

Although there is no formal data on how many suicides in the US involve its captains of industry, Dr Rudd is confident the rate will be nowhere near that of Japan's.

'There is a historical-cultural distinction between the East and the West - it really reflects cultural differences in terms of the meaning of suicide.

'If you look at the cultural heritage of suicide in Eastern culture as opposed to Western culture, there is less stigma and in some respects it has been conceptualised as an honourable action, versus the West, where it is associated with a stigma and illness.'