A tragedy in Massachusetts is highlighting the terrible strain the housing crisis is taking on millions of former homeowners who are losing their homes:
The housing crunch has caused anguish and anxiety for millions of Americans. For Carlene Balderrama, a 53-year-old wife and mother, the pressure was apparently too much to bear.
Police say that Balderrama shot herself Tuesday afternoon 90 minutes before her foreclosed home on Duffy Drive was scheduled to be sold at auction. Chief Raymond O’Berg said that Balderrama faxed a letter to her mortgage company at 2:30 p.m., telling them that “by the time they foreclosed on the house today she’d be dead.”
The mortgage company notified police, who found her body at 3:30 p.m. The auction had been scheduled to start at 5 p.m. Balderrama used her husband’s high-powered rifle, O’Berg said.
She left a note for her family saying they should “take the [life] insurance money and pay for the house,” O’Berg said. (Boston Globe)
In recent conversations with public health officials involved in surveillance of violent deaths, they report that increasingly they are seeing under the data field that describes “Circumstance” a specific notation of “Foreclosure.” This is anecdotal information so we don’t know if this is an absolute increase in suicides caused by the stress of the mortgage crisis or just a more a better specification of what previously was merely described as “Financial circumstances.” But the case is an opportunity for me to make some observations.
First, it has long been recognized that there is a relationship between economic stresses in the society as a whole and suicide. While some powerful and sophisticated econometric models have been used to demonstrate this (I am thinking of Harvey Brenner’s work many decades ago) it really isn’t at all surprising. One can reasonably posit in this case that were it not for the mortgage crisis this woman would be alive today. Said another way, those who committed the subprime mortgage negligence killed this woman, and to the extent they broke laws in the process, they are guilty of criminally negligent homicide.
Second, suicide is often seen in our society as evidence of mental illness. My colleagues in the mental health professions seem incapable of seeing it any other way, no matter the circumstance. It is inconceivable to them suicide can ever be a rational act. But whether you are a farmer in India losing his farm or this woman in Massachusetts losing her home, the rationality seems quite clear. She believed, on rational grounds, that if she killed herself her husband and son would be better off because her insurance money would save the house for them. There’s nothing irrational about that. We don’t say soldiers are irrational for sacrificing themselves in battle for the sake of their country or their family. Why should we say this woman is crazy for doing the same thing?
Third, whether you agree with my second point or not, the presence of a gun in the household undoubtedly made it much easier for her to kill herself. Maybe she would have found another way, but suicide rates are particularly high among police officers and health care personnel and the main reason is not because they are crazier than everyone else but because they have the means at hand (guns and drugs) to carry it out effectively. Many suicides are indeed tragedies that are not rational and could and should be prevented. The best examples are the impulsive suicides of young people despondent or distraught over something they would otherwise get over or could be treated (an infatuation gone wrong, bullying at school, bipolar disorder). For many public health professionals, the main problem with guns is not homicide but suicide. If you make a suicide gesture with a gun it will almost always succeed. Access to guns is one of the main enablers of suicide.
Whatever your views on these matters, we all would agree this is a horrible tragedy. Unfortunately it is also an emblematic one.