Coping With Economic Stress: Men Vs Women

Women Vs. Men: Handling Economic Stress
Kiri Blakeley, 01.12.09, 5:30 PM ET


Last week’s suicide of Chicago real estate auctions mogul Steven Good is the latest instance of what could be termed “econocide”–suicide due to the poor economy. While Good, who shot himself, did not leave a note indicating his motivation, his death comes a month after he made comments about the collapse of the real estate industry at a business conference.

Good’s suicide follows that of Kirk Stephenson, a financier who jumped in front of a train in England after his private equity firm suffered losses; French financier Rene-Thierry Magnon de la Villehuchet, who slit his wrists after losing $1 billion in the Bernard Madoff scheme; and German billionaire Adolf Merckle, who threw himself in front of a train after massive investment losses.

These tragic figures had something in common besides economic hard times: They were all men.

In 2005, the latest statistics offered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 25,907 men killed themselves, versus 6,730 women. A big part of this discrepancy is that men use much more successful methods of suicide. Each of the four moguls who took their lives did so in a decisive fashion. “Men take far more permanent measures,” says Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, who counsels many Wall Streeters and their families. “Women might make gestures that are not as strong, that are more a cry for help or attention.”

The financial crisis offers serious and perhaps widespread motivations for male suicidal behavior. “This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Dr. Leslie Seppinni, a Beverly Hills, Calif., clinical psychologist who counsels many millionaires, both male and female.

Seppinni notes this is the first time in her 18-year career that businessmen are calling her with suicidal impulses over their financial state. In the past three months, she has intervened in at least 14 cases of men seriously considering taking their lives. “There’s been a rapid increase in the numbers,” she says. Especially vulnerable are men over 50: “They’ve already built their empire one or two times, and they don’t necessarily have the emotional energy to rebuild.”

High net-worth individuals may be more susceptible to suicide in tough economic times, not only because they have more to lose from a financial standpoint but also because they tend to be haunted by the idea that they had a hand in their financial downfall. “They feel guilt and shame because they think they should have known what was coming with the market or they should have pulled out faster,” says Seppinni.

Seppinni says her female clients, many of whom are chief executives, are more likely to “roll up their sleeves and become a cook somewhere or bake cookies and sell them–whatever needs to be done. She’s not thinking her life is ruined; she just wants to put food on the table.” Seppinni notes that not one female client has called her about feeling suicidal due to the downturn.

“Men traditionally are the breadwinners,” says Alpert. “Particularly with big-name people, so much of their image, reputation and ego depend on financial success.”

Which is why women, experts say, are more likely to take their lives when they’ve had long-term depression problems or suffer from mental illness, rather than over their financial condition. In Seppinni’s opinion, “women do not kill themselves over finances.”

For 3 million years, men have been the hunters and protectors, explains Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. “Around the world, from the Zulus to Eskimos, women look for men who provide resources. When men lose that profoundly basic role and purpose, they get depressed.”

Which isn’t to say that women don’t get stressed about the economy too. They are just more likely to manifest their stress in different ways.

Women, say experts, are more likely to take “healthy” approaches to dealing with stress. They work out, eat well, get plenty of sleep and look to family and friends for emotional support. Men, especially risk takers in the financial world, have a tendency to isolate themselves, clam up or “escape” through drugs, alcohol and sex.

Lynn Mayabb, senior adviser at Kansas City, Mo.-based BKD Wealth Advisors, which manages $1.4 billion for wealthy individuals, has had her share of downturn-related stress–some clients have blamed her for their losses.

During times like these, Mayabb takes a deep breath, concentrates on what she can change rather than what she can’t, and refocuses her clients on long-term financial goals. When one of her male clients broke down crying in her office, Mayabb chose to deal with his more cool-headed wife. “The men are a little too focused on ‘What did I lose this quarter?’ Women are more able to see the big picture,” she says.

“I cannot picture one of the men I work with being able to handle the issues I’ve had to deal with,” says Amy James, 41, CEO of sixThings, which monitors educational materials for compliance with federal regulations. Since September, James has personally fired 34 employees (70% of her full-time workforce), relocated her company from New York City to Oklahoma City and been sued three times.

She notes that male friends suffering business malaise “disappear” from her social circle or refuse to talk about their travails, while James relies heavily on bonding sessions with her female friends. “They are the biggest stress relief I have.”

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