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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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.