Why Wall Street Bankers Commit Suicide


woman in financial district walking steam clouds

AP Photo

Perhaps it would be rash to call it a spate or a trend, but in the past six months a number of financial professionals from the United States to London to Hong Kong have committed suicide.


So it's time to talk about why.

"Even if it's not a trend it's something that needs to be looked at closely," said one Wall Street source familiar with employee relations issues. "Each individual situation is going to be different; you never know what causes someone to reach this point in their life. It could be their job or their personal life, and when you have a big firm you're going to have a lot of different kinds of people."

What makes Wall Street different from a lot of jobs, though, is that these different kinds of people are going to have different ways of dealing with the stress they all have in common - a high-pressure job that has been under even more scrutiny since the financial crisis.

Imagine you're a highly competitive, results-oriented person whose job once rewarded their work with a fat check. Then the world's economy crashed. It's your fault. As a result you have new rules about what you can and cannot do. You're catching up with new compliance regulations and working harder than before, but you can't produce the money you once did. The means of production you once had are gone.


This isn't just something that is impacting the high-octane traders and investment bankers who carry the desire to land a corner office one day. As the South China Morning Post points out, new regulation is taking its toll on the rarely-mentioned back office Wall Street employees as well.

"Wall Street didn't clean up in terms of regulation until they found out there was a huge mortgage crisis," said Dr. Alden Cass, psychologist and author of "Bullish Thinking: The Advisor's Guide to Surviving and Thriving on Wall Street."

"[Mental health] is the same thing; it's not a problem until somebody gets hurt."

Cass specializes in treating patients with high-powered, high-pressure jobs. He says they're especially in danger of suffering when the job which they consider a part of their identity doesn't match up with the lofty expectations they've set for themselves. Wall Streeters are often by nature highly competitive perfectionists who compare themselves to their peers.

In an environment where people are getting fired left and right, says Cass, this can result in serious paranoia.


"People feel replaceable," he said.

Wall Street firms made mental health a serious issue after 9/11. It was okay for people to ask for help after witnessing or losing friends and family to such a tragedy. That attention was short-lived though, and the financial crisis turned the industry's attention to a totally different fire it had to put out.

Unfortunately, the financial crisis fire was a major stressor on bankers too.

Instead of seeking out the treatment that Wall Street firms may offer - often outside psychologists whom the bank can connect them to - bankers more often than not turn to drugs and alcohol.

It's a cultural thing. Asking for help makes you seem weak. Talking to your colleagues about your stresses makes you seem weak. No one on Wall Street - a place where 'you eat what you kill' is written on every heart - wants to seem weak.


"The personality of the alpha male makes getting help hard and Wall Street management is still struggling to get a comfort level on confronting employees who need help," said one veteran trader.

The alpha male on Wall Street can work all day and party all night while still hauling in massive cash for their firm. Sometimes, they self-treat their stress with drugs and alcohol, or they blow their money on expensive whims.

"Maybe the culture is finally breaking at the seams," said one young hedge fund analyst.

Cass thinks that the only way to really change mental health is to go beyond having psychiatrists available (even on site) and tie it to the thing that bankers work for: their compensation. After all it's the main reason they seek him out.

"The No. 1 reason I get a referral is that a patient says to me 'For some reason I'm not making as much money as I used to," said Cass.


From then to recovery, it's real work trying to convince frustrated overachievers that their emotional health is tied to their performance, and that it's something that deserves their full attention.