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 calumslist.org 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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.