What began with the financial crisis has had far-reaching consequences for many lives. Photo: Getty
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Suicide: the hidden cost of the financial crisis

Are we limited in the ways we can discuss suicide? It is not just a mental health problem – it’s a social, ethical and political issue too.

Earlier this year the Department of Health published “Preventing suicide in England: One year on” (pdf). As well as the usual statistics – a breakdown of suicides in England by age, gender, means, etc – there was also the following statement:

There have now been a number of studies demonstrating an association between the areas of England worst affected by unemployment during the recent financial crisis and increased suicide rates. Between 2008 and 2010, there were approximately 800 more suicides among men and 155 more among women than would have been expected based on historical trends. This was supported by a recent review of the international impact of the global economic crisis.”

Although there have been a few newspaper reports on the rise in rates of suicide in countries affected by the financial crisis (most notably Greece) little has really been written or said on the relationship between the “global economic crisis” and the increase in self-inflicted deaths that have resulted. We might wonder why that is. Partly it may be a question of how suicide itself is generally thought about. There is a history of stigma and shame attached to the death that persists which makes it a topic not easily discussed in public (although somewhat sensationalist reporting still goes on – MailOnline seems to find it hard to not report on suicides which contain an element of scandal or intrigue). Beyond that, however, there are also issues around who gets to speak about suicide, and in what way.

The study of suicide is now, for the most part, a self-consciously scientific venture. Neutrality and objectivity are highly valued within the academic field of suicidology, and as a consequence anything which veers towards “opinion” tends to get marginalised. Additionally, the field is dominated by psychiatrists and psychologists who adhere to a fairly rigid style of thought which reads suicide as an issue primarily of individual mental health – the dominant idea being that people who kill themselves are mentally ill. Taken together these result in fairly restricted, and restricting, ways of talking about the subject.

These assumptions or ways of thinking about suicide have come to be inscribed in media guidelines to editors in the form of “best practice suicide reporting tips” (such as those produced by the Samaritans) and codes of practice (like the Press Complaints Commission’s). While the rationale for careful and responsible reporting is hard to fault, there are, perhaps, unintended consequences, again around the limited ways we are now able to discuss suicide.  In particular, it has become difficult to raise concerns over possible associations between social changes and deaths by suicide.

Reporters and editors are encouraged to frame the issue in terms of individual mental health, so nearly a thousand “additional” deaths by suicide in England in a two year span barely get a mention, let alone serious analysis. Attempts to link suicides to “austerity” measures and hardship (eg the webpage which documented suicides where there was a clear link to welfare cuts) are met with short shrift in certain elements of the media. Brendan O’Neill in the Telegraph (“This exploitation of suicidal people is a new low for campaigners against welfare reform”) described a suicide as “the act of someone in a fevered, unstable state of mind” and that “to exploit such psychologically disturbed behaviour for political ends… is politics of the most depraved variety”.

Despite such sentiments I would still argue that if suicide is a problem it is as much a social, ethical and political issue as a mental health one. We now define and explain suicide almost solely in terms of individual mental illness and risk and as a consequence such deaths are mostly understood as private, individual events largely divorced from questions of social justice. In short, suicide remains outside politics (although I would also argue that to frame suicide only as an issue of individual mental health is not ethically neutral – it is itself a political act).

Addressing the ethical, social and political dimensions of suicide, though, would mean contesting certain dominant ways of thinking and writing about the issue. Framing suicide as a question of social justice would involve accepting that it is almost always more than the result of an individual mental health problem, and that narrow, reductionist psychological and psychiatric explanations, however authoritatively or “scientifically” expressed, place limits on our responses. Accepting that suicide is as much a social justice issue as a mental health one would require a substantial change in the way we think, but it would open up new possibilities for action – ones that were maybe more collective and politically-informed. Despite the challenges involved in such a reframing of the issue, I think that would be a better approach than letting nearly a thousand “more than expected” deaths pass without comment.

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

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.