Depression and austerity: “It’s as though my mind and body have both just closed down”

Suicide should never be exploited for political ends, but it would be wrong to ignore the effect of the cuts on people's mental health.

For a while now, Sue has wanted to die.

It’s a new feeling that sits on top of years of existing depression; one that’s crept up on her aged 51 with the recent pressures of benefit cuts and unemployment. She’s in arrears with her mortgage company and this month she’s lost her exemption from paying council tax. She’s already choosing between food and fuel and the ever-increasing burden is making her more ill.  

“I’ve coped for so long . . .” she tells me. “I just can’t cope anymore.”

Sue hasn’t been able to work for the past decade due to her depression but has often tried to get short term jobs, small tasks on temporary contracts that allow her to feel she’s contributing to something. Her mental health, teamed with the stress of money problems, is having physical effects now though – shoulder, back, hip, and leg pain – and she has had to stop applying for anything.  

“All I want is to be well, to be able to look for work again,” she says. “It was only when I realised that if I was offered an interview I was no longer physically capable of getting there that I finally admitted defeat and stopped applying for jobs.”

She’s had to apply for Employment and Support Allowance, the benefit for people whose long-term sickness or disability hinders their ability to work, and is waiting for her appointment date to come through any day.

She’s receiving help from mental health charity, Mind, in dealing with the complicated and stressful process but due to increasing pressures on the service and others like it, it has had to delay her benefit application in order for an advocate to be available.

She tells me she’s dreading the assessment. In the back of her head are reports of the Atos track-record. People like her, with mental health problems, she says, don’t stand a chance.

“I’m struggling to get the motivation to even feed myself properly so this is going to be a heck of an ordeal in so many ways,” she says.

A lack of motivation and money surround Sue in her two-bed home.

An old gas fire sits in the lounge, put there three winters ago when her central heating broke. There’s no hot water, and if she wants to do the washing-up, she has to heat water in pans and a kettle. Damp has crept through the house. Water comes through the bedroom ceiling when it rains too heavily and there’s an increasingly large patch of black mould in the kitchen.

Sue tells me she’s neither had the physical or emotional strength to deal with any of it.

Mental health problems, in some form, have been a constant for Sue since she was a child. She had her first breakdown when she was fourteen and she was made redundant from her last job, she believes, due to her depression.

The extra pressure from the Job Centre, the work programme, and the mortgage company has pushed her further over recent months, she says. The council tax charge has been the final straw.

“It’s as though my mind and body have both just closed down,” she says.

She tells me her depression is the worse it’s ever been and she’s been suicidal for about three months. Promises she’s made to family members are the only reason she still here, she says; particularly as her sister also has mental health problems.

“My sister and I both have a bridge of choice,” she tells me. “But we’ve promised each other that neither will kill herself so long as the other doesn’t.”

Her mother is a carer for Sue’s stepfather. Sue says repeatedly that she knows her suicide would devastate her mother.

“The trouble is that not being able to kill yourself doesn’t actually give you the will to live,” she adds.

Since the early cuts to the welfare system were introduced, there have been reports of suicides connected to the loss of benefits and increasing poverty. The death of Nicholas Barker, a former labourer from Yorkshire who was paralysed after a brain haemorrhage, has been the latest. A coroner ruled last month that he had taken his own life after his benefits were stopped. Nicholas was 51, and was found dead last Christmas with a shotgun at his feet. He’d been due to attend an appeal hearing against the decision to stop his benefits the following week.

The mind is a complicated thing. Suicide can’t be reduced to headlines and death should never be used as a means to a political end; no matter how well-meaning. But it seems wrong to ignore the link to poverty - or to ignore the many who, living and feeling the news stories, have spoken to me about what the cuts are doing to them when they were already finding it difficult to cope.  

Sue is unambiguous.

“I have no doubt at all that people are feeling suicidal because of the cuts and the additional pressures we’re being put under,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling suicidal myself until these problems with the council tax and the mortgage blew up in my face.”

She’s recently started taking anti-depressants for the first time in her life.

She says she never thought she’d agree to them but has reached the stage where she feels she has to. Things are different now.

“I’ve been coping with relentless pressure for so long, but I did at least still want to live. These additional financial pressures were the final straw,” she says. “The cuts helped to make me ill and are now affecting my recovery, both physically and emotionally.”


If any of the content of this story affects you, the Samaritans are available to talk 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The Heygate housing estate near Elephant and Castle in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.