Almost three years ago, when Bernis Madoff was discovered to have bilked investors of billions of dollars in an elaborate Ponzi scheme, the disbelief and anger as the stunned world looked on was shocking. The ones most in shock were those who felt “lucky” enough to invest with Bernie Madoff. Wealthy people, including celebrities, found their own nest egg or the money for their foundations completely wiped out. However, the one who was the most tragic casualty was his own son, Mark, who took his life 2 years to the day after his father’s arrest.
Less than a month ago, Mark Madoff’s widow, Stephanie Madoff Mack, released “The End Of Normal: A Wife’s Anguish, A Widow’s New Life,” revealing her insider’s view of the disgraced Madoff family both before and after the scandal rocked the financial world. Since seeing her interviewed on TV recently, along with interviews of Mark’s brother and mother, I was struck with the nagging thought of what Mark Madoff and his family did not know. I hope that we as therapists can learn from this tragic death to be vigilant in some of the some warning signs that we might see in our clients and loved ones.
We do not have to know this family personally to learn from this tragedy. From our collective shared experience of the drama unfolding in the media, we can all learn important lessons and factors that lead to suicide. In turn, hopefully, we can recognize risk factors and be more astute in preventing suicide. According to The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, suicide is the 8th leading cause of death of men in the U.S. The Center for Disease Control estimates that every 15 minutes someone dies of suicide in the U.S., totaling over 30,000 people yearly, while the number who attempt suicide is up to 25 times higher. Suicide is a serious problem and if we can learn from the tragic situation of Mark Madoff, perhaps we can do more to bring down these tragic statistics.
What can we learn that Mark Madoff did not know?
1. For those who are depressed, special anniversaries have especially poignant and almost mythical significance. Of course, I do not mean the generally accepted notion of an anniversary, which is usually regarded as a positive life milestone. Rather for a depressed person, anniversaries of trauma and pain, the type in which ones’ life is severed into “before” and “after” is a time of particular risk for suicidal behavior. These are called “anniversary suicides.” Mark Madoff’s suicide was 2 years to the day of his father’s arrest, immediately after he and his brother turned their father into the police after the massive fraud was uncovered. On this “anniversary,” he was left alone to take care of his toddler son while his wife and daughter were off in Disneyworld. Unfortunately most people do not even think of this “anniversary” being a risk factor, but if there is one thing we can learn in our “psychological autopsy” is that this anniversary of horrendous trauma begets other horrendous trauma when a person cannot move on from the trauma. If his family knew this, they would have known that this is not a time to be left to wallow in despondency without “on hand” adult support. Anniversary suicide was also played out publically when Tyler Lambert, son of former Different Strokes Star, Dana Plato, took his life almost 11 years to the day after her suicide.
2. Psychiatrist/Author John Sharp cites anniversary suicides as an example of people being gripped certain times of year by their own “emotional calendar.” In his book, The Emotional Calendar: Understanding Seasonal Influences and Milestones to Become Happier, More Fulfilled, and in Control of Your Life, he uses this term to depict the emotional distress people feel during certain times of the year that have particular significance. By understanding the milestones of your own “emotional calendar” an individual can become more empowered to recognize the signs of distress and develop skills to cope and regroup. For example, Seasonal Affective disorder, (SAD) is an example of being subject to one’s “emotional calendar” and affects 4 per cent of the population. By developing coping strategies by making sure you are exposed to more daylight or using light therapy, symptoms of SAD are often significantly decreased.
3. A further complication in Mark Madoff’s history is the psychological immobilization and reported obsession over news of the family disgrace, suggesting that he suffered from PSTD. Not only did he have horrific trauma in his life, his entire world was rocked on a very public stage of shame and humiliation. The world of riches and excesses was shattered in an instant, and instead of carefree jaunt with his beautiful wife and children to his 6 million dollar Nantucket home, he faced several investor lawsuits, was suddenly unemployable in the way that he was accustomed, and found himself constantly on the defensive maintaining his own innocence, amidst the backdrop of the ongoing criminal investigation of his father with and the shocking press coverage.
4. As therapists we know how important a support system is for a healthy life adjustment. Mark Madoff’s support system blew up all at once. He no longer was part of a close knit family, and thus his main support system as he knew it was gone in a flash. Since the arrest, he had no communication with his mother or his father, and his relationship with his wife understandably was stressed, especially evidenced in a well publicized argument one evening when he stormed out of their apartment before his wife, hours later, reported his disappearance to the police. He became isolated. His wife petitioned to have her last name and the names of their two children changed to Mack to avoid constant public recognition. While completely understandable, in his distorted way of thinking, Mark Madoff might have seen this as one more blow to his support system, leaving him feeling more disconnected, alone, and marginalized.
5. Although I am not privy to Mark Madoff’s psychological treatment and possible use of anti-depressants, with depression that seemed to be spiraling with no relief in sight, he might have benefitted from intensive treatment such as inpatient treatment. Perhaps he never even had an intensive review of potentially helpful psychiatric medication, since there has been no mention of this in the news. Was he even in counseling?
Regardless, after a long period of time in which a person does not seem to be able to reshift and redirect the pain to assume a more functional life, intensive mental help is needed or at least needs to be re-evaluated. When depression and a sense of helplessness is unremitting, this is the time for drastic measures. I do wonder if the sense of shame and embarrassment prevented him and his support system to insist on getting him the help he needed.
6. Mark Madoff had tried suicide earlier with prescription medication, reportedly Ambien, after his parents used Ambien to take their own lives a year earlier. A prior suicide attempt is one of the biggest risk factors for suicidal behavior. This factor compiled with the fact that his own parents were also suicidal, might have made suicide seem to be a plausible “way out” and maybe the only way to escape all the pain.
7. Loss is a paramount theme in depression and suicide. Loss of hope, loss of a sense of control over his life, loss of the belief that life can get better, and loss of a sense of self as worthy and important. Mark Madoff lost so much without gaining a new sense of an evolving self in return. In his life, there likely seemed to be no life after loss, just more loss. He lacked the resiliency skills to realize that he still was worthy and his existence was still meaningful to loved ones. Some of his close friends recalled he would say statements intimating that his wife and 4 kids would be better off without him. This distorted way of thinking that his life was harmful even to his own children shows that he could not see clearly though all the trauma, and this extreme distorted way of thinking and loss of sense of self is a recipe for suicidal intent.
In sum, we can learn so many lessons from this human tragedy in the public eye. As counselors, we need to be vigilant of the warning signs of suicide, and be ever vigilant to the “emotional calendars” of our clients and loved ones who seem to have more of a foothold on the past rather than the present. As therapists, we need to be sensitive to the need for our distraught clients to have hope. Mark Madoff was so anchored in his loss, shame and helplessness he could not build on his devastation – rather he was defined by it. What he did not know is that there is hope, and there can be life after loss.