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.

Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle