'Everyone is entitled to a second chance'
People now are so desperate that they don't know how to cope, Nick Leeson tells Tom Lyons
NICK Leeson knows about pressure. The former rogue trader who lost $1.3bn on secret speculative trades, wiping out Barings Bank, admits he considered self-harm at his lowest points.
"Depression is a very powerful foe. It gets at you," he told the Sunday Independent.
Leeson was jailed for six- and-a-half years.
"When I was in prison in Singapore, I could feel myself pushing further and further down into that cycle. There were moments when rather than deal with it, I thought about smashing my head against the sharpest corner of the room in my cell.
"I thought it would be better to be sent to the infirmary where they would drug me up and I wouldn't have to think about things," he added.
Today, 13 years after being released from jail and now working as a debt resolution expert with the GDP Partnership here in Ireland, Leeson is seeing the prospect of self-harm or even suicide again and again.
"I can see despair in some of the clients we are dealing with," Leeson said.
"We recently had a client who saw no end to things and was talking about taking his own life. He'd repaid 80 per cent of his borrowings but could see no way to do the last bit," Leeson continued.
"We rang his bank and they backed right down immediately, but it is terrible that it had somehow gone so far."
Leeson said the findings published in last week's British Medical Journal on the link between the global economic crisis and an increase in suicides are no surprise.
"They are only the suicides we know about," Leeson said.
"This is like staring down the barrel of a gun, you feel like either you or the bank is going to pull the trigger.
"Keeping up the pretence that everything is fine is enormously hard. We have customers who externally are well dressed and well spoken but they are just keeping up appearances. They are going to the races to be seen there but they literally only have €2 in their pockets," Leeson explained.
"It is really dangerous keeping up appearances. Eventually you break down. When you deteriorate, it can happen very fast," he said.
Leeson said he'd pulled himself back from the brink by learning to communicate and share his problems.
"You bury your head in the sand. I didn't ask anyone for advice. I just kept hoping that it would go away," Leeson said.
"I was proud, a big fish in a small pond. Facing up to the fact that I wasn't the success that people perceived me to be was really hard. It was like living in parallel universes. You know the truth but the people around you don't.
"Debt creeps up on you and it erodes away your mind. Not accepting you're in grave difficulty really affects your mental health. Depression comes from not being able to deal with the situation," he said.
"People need help to engage with their banks. The banks lent you the money so they are going to expect it back," Leeson said. "At the moment, it is a war of attrition. Banks are wearing people down.
"It is not right. Everyone is entitled to a second chance," Leeson said. "It was a global financial collapse which swept everybody up and the banks need to realise that.
"Fundamental things need to be changed. It is not enough for bankers to stand in front of the Oireachtas and claim they've been resolving the debt crisis when they haven't done anything. Really, they are just kicking the can down the road.
"Short-terms solutions are not resolving anything; banks need to come up with solutions that will be sustainable for 10 years.
"It is about education and communication," Leeson said.
"The banks have been mandated to solve the mortgage crisis. They won't bankrupt you or put you in jail. If you can't afford to pay the money back, you can't. Don't suffer in silence. Acceptance is the first step of recovery. You have to communicate and engage with your debts and the stress will lift from you," he added.
Banks need to learn how to empathise with the plight of borrowers, Leeson said.
"Banks typically have no real experience with debt recovery. They have all the rhetoric but they are not treating borrowers well enough.
"Banks have to accept that some of their behaviour during the boom was wrong. Banks are culpable too and they need to accept that and work with people," he said.
"Nobody who works in a bank is a mental health professional. Some bankers have empathy but not all. It is often very cold, very blunt.
"Bankers need professional training. They should be morally obliged to do more. They are pushing people too much. There should be free referrals to mental health professionals for borrowers or people in-house in banks to ensure people are dealt with properly.
"People are so desperate they don't know how to cope. The banks must take responsibility. They are simply not geared up for the scale of what is happening," he said.