Faced with a different kind of depression

Times Staff Writer

A Porter Ranch man who murdered his family and killed himself last weekend as he faced financial ruin is the latest and most extreme case of a wave of distress washing over the American psyche.

Karthik Rajaram, an unemployed financial advisor, left a suicide note saying that his financial state left him few options but to kill his wife, three children and mother-in-law. Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore described Rajaram, 45, as a man stuck in a rabbit hole of despair.

The tragic case of the Rajaram family is at the bleakest edge of the economic turmoil that is rattling Americans’ emotional well-being. Worries about home foreclosures, job losses and plunging stock prices have sparked a surge in mental health problems.


“The closest I have seen to this in the last 10 to 20 years is the spike after 9/11,” said Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of ComPsych Corp., a Chicago-based company that coordinates mental health referrals for employers. “But this is more geographically dispersed and is not going to get better in a month.”

Rich Paul, a vice president at Virginia-based ValueOptions Inc., which also handles mental health referrals, said that calls about stress related to foreclosure and financial hardship have gone up 200% in California in the last year.

At Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Medical Center, Dr. Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry, said there was a fourfold increase in psychiatric admissions at his hospital during August, with roughly 60% of patients saying financial stress contributed to their problems.

In Stockton, the epicenter of California’s home foreclosure crisis, mental health counselor Victoria Tabios said that more than a third of her cases revolve around foreclosures. Inevitably, problems spill into other parts of family life.

“They are falling behind on their house payments because of bad loans, so they begin fighting and blaming each other. Some resort to drinking,” she said. “It’s a domino effect.”

By comparison, some people experience relatively minor symptoms -- fatigue, headaches and lack of motivation. The problems can gradually wear down a person as the economic turmoil continues.

“I’m so drained, I feel like a need a B-12 shot every 15 minutes,” said glass artist Darin Jackson, 44, whose Moreno Valley neighborhood is pocked with foreclosed homes.

For others, like, Rajaram, the financial pressures can seem like an inescapable pit.

What drove him over the edge to total despair is a mystery. By all accounts, he had enjoyed a successful career as an investor in start-up companies before running into an economic crisis that led him to a violent end.

Rajaram, his wife, 39, his 69-year-old mother-in-law, and three sons, ages 7, 12 and 19, appeared to be a typical suburban family, although one former business associate said that “he had some behavioral problems. . . . He was not an emotionally stable person.”

Police found no obvious foreclosure looming in Rajaram’s future and no bankruptcy. But one investigator familiar with the case said Rajaram “lost a lot of money in the markets.”

“We know he believed he had no options,” Police Capt. Sean Kane said. “It is a shame he believed that, because he clearly had options.”

Rates of depression and suicide tend to rise during hard economic times. A study that looked at economic shifts between 1972 and 1991 found suicides rose an average of 2% when the economy faltered.

Depressed over their financial situation, people often begin to isolate themselves from family and friends, setting themselves on a downward spiral, Turner said. Cut off from a support network they so desperately need, they sink into hopelessness.

But suicides are rare. More common is a nagging sense of unease that begins to disrupt work and personal relationships, and makes problems in other areas seem worse.

The early signs, such as insomnia, sadness, irritability and intestinal problems, can be subtle and easily missed by family members or friends.

A survey released by the American Psychological Assn. on Tuesday found that eight of 10 Americans say the economy is a major source of stress in their lives. Nearly half say they are worried about providing for their families’ basic needs.

“If a person feels stressed about one thing they feel stressed about everything. It’s a snowball effect,” said Santa Monica psychologist and American Psychological Assn. representative Elaine Rodino.

The study was conducted before the last big declines in the stock market, and Rodino is certain the figures have gone up even further.

The economic turmoil has affected not only those who lost their homes or jobs, but also broad swath of the American economy that is dependent on investments for their families’ future. This week, the Dow Jones industrial average sank to its lowest point in five years.

The economy “is an equal opportunity stress agent,” Long Beach psychologist Jana Martin said. “It’s touching people from all walks of life.”

At a certain point of financial loss, even small expenses can balloon into crushing burdens. Martin said one patient, a teacher, was depressed about making a career change because she could no longer afford the gasoline for her 35-mile commute.

Another patient, a small-business owner, felt like a failure because she had to lay off employees.

Jackson of Moreno Valley said cheap pleasures like walks in the park or board games have become painful because they remind him that his family can’t afford to do much else. “You can only play so many games of Scrabble,” he said.

Unlike many emotional troubles, patients’ depression is so connected to their financial state that mental health professionals say they must also tackle patients’ money problems. Kaiser Permanente’s Turner said some patients are so debilitated that he must take on the role of financial coach.

In some cases, he has helped patients apply online for mortgage refinancings during counseling sessions.

“These people are so depressed they just throw up their hands. They can’t do anything, and problems pile up,” he said. “They don’t realize that if they fill out one piece of paper or make one phone call they could avoid some of these negative outcomes.”

Even for those who manage to dig themselves out of trouble, the psychological effects of the downturn could be lasting.

“If they translate the financial crisis as personal failure, it could have long-term consequences. If they feel there is no need to try very hard they will lower expectations of themselves,” Martin said.

After a decade of easy money and soaring housing prices, the bursting economic bubble has been hard for many people to face.

For immigrant strivers intoxicated with the American dream, the blow is particularly hard.

Rajaram was part of a model minority community that has achieved the American Dream in less time than almost any other wave of immigrants, said Lakshmy Parameswaran, a family counselor and founder of Houston based DAYA Inc., an organization that help South Asian victims of domestic violence. With that success comes incredible expectations and pressure.

“There is a constant pressure to make good and for one to show to those back home you are living the American Dream,” she said. “There is a lot of pressure to have it all.”

A few weeks ago, the family seemed relaxed and happy at a party in Beverly Hills, recalled a friend, Uma Rajaram of Tustin.

“I don’t think any of their close friends even know what is going on,” said the woman, who is not related to the family. People don’t talk much about finances, she said. “It’s the culture you grow up with.”


Times staff writers Ari B. Bloomekatz, Evelyn Larrubia, Richard Winton and Kimi Yoshino also contributed to this report.