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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496