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Hard times

Suicide rates rose at shocking speed after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – and have done with each r

From Jonathan Naess's office on the 15th floor of a block in Vauxhall, you get a good view of the City of London. Round a bend in the Thames, it seems far away, peaceful, glinting in the afternoon sun. Naess - ex-corporate financier, manic depressive and mental health campaigner - remembers it fondly.

“It's a buzzing, exciting, vibrant place to work, a place I always enjoyed working in," he says. At the height of the financial boom, he recalls, to burn out while at work was "a badge of honour, to show how important you were". They called it executive stress. "Stress in a good sense," he says, "as well as a bad sense." Naess is, by his own admission, not well. He suffers from anxiety, depression, lack of concentration. He first had such symptoms in his twenties and then, unexpectedly, they struck again. "When it happened a second time, it was frightening and upsetting. I was in the middle of my career and I thought, 'Well, there's no way back from this.'"

He hadn't seen it coming. Nor had his colleagues. "Nobody tapped me on the shoulder to say, 'Jonathan, I think you need to get some help here,'" even though his behaviour was becoming extreme. Unable to sit still, he kept having to go outside to clear his head, talking too fast, his brain "going off at three thousand tangents all at the same time". He was sectioned, then hospitalised. And then he bounced back - making deals again, proving he could still cut it. Now he campaigns on behalf of people with mental health problems at work. And today he's worried. He looks out of the window at the blue sky. "The time you're most vulnerable to suicide is just about now. Quite often you're too depressed to take your life, but as the good weather comes around, people may just have enough energy to do something terrible."

The statistics show that there is usually a rise in suicides in the spring and summer. And this is no ordinary summer. The recession has deepened. On 12 August, it was reported that the jobless rate in the UK had increased by 220,000 in the three months to June, reaching a 15-year high. There are now more than 2.4 million people unemployed across the country - 7.8 per cent of the workforce - and that figure is expected to rise; the British Chambers of Commerce recently predicted that it would peak at roughly 3.2 million next year. Beyond the immediate economic and social consequences such as lower productivity, thousands more people claiming jobseekers' allowance and a young generation in effect excluded from the labour market, high unemployment is having a psychological effect. Studies show that joblessness can have as great an impact as divorce or bereavement on mental well-being.

Successive periods of recession over the past century have been linked to surges in mental illness, and suicide in par­ticular. During the Great Depression in the United States, suicide rates hit a 99-year high (of 17 per 100,000 people). In the UK they peaked at 13.5 per 100,000 in the early 1930s, when unemployment reached its highest level for a century. And the collapse of the east Asian bubble economy in the late 1990s led to a huge increase in suicide rates. In Japan in 1998, suicides increased by more than a third, soaring to more than 30,000 for the year and then nearly 35,000 in 2003 (a rate of 27 per 100,000, compared to six per 100,000 in the UK in the same period).

Some say the link between recession and suicide is exaggerated - that, as Naess puts it, a public mythology has grown out of the shocking headlines about fortune-losing Wall Street bankers leaping to their deaths during the 1929 crash. But the evidence clearly shows a correlation. In July, the Lancet released a study looking at suicide rates in 26 European countries. It found that for every 1 per cent increase in unemployment, the suicide rate for people younger than 65 increased by 0.8 per cent. Research from the Wellington School of Medicine in New Zealand spells it out: you are two to three times more likely to kill yourself if you're not working.

Across the river from Vauxhall in the House of Lords, the Labour life peer Richard Layard - economist and prominent promoter of happiness - is concerned about the psychological impact of the current financial gloom. How much additional mental illness will there be? A lot, he thinks. But one should not exaggerate that, he says, "because there's so much already". There are about a million people on incapacity benefit in the UK due to mental illness, and roughly six million people suffering from depression or anxiety.

The problem, as Layard sees it, is not just unemployment, but a fear of unemployment - what Naess calls the "fear cycle", where people fear losing their jobs and, if they do, fear never being able to find another one. He refers to a German study which shows that being out of work for a significant period of time affects people's happiness for the rest of their lives. It is a traumatic experience, haunting its victims again and again.

David Spiegel, a psychiatrist who runs the Centre on Stress and Health at Stanford University in the US, supports Layard's view. The latest figures put the US unemployment rate at 9.4 per cent (a slight fall from June's 9.5 per cent, but otherwise the highest rate for 25 years). Nearly a quarter of a million people lost their jobs in July alone. Spiegel says that over the past few months there has been a significant rise in the number of people coming to his clinic, badly damaged both financially and psychologically. "It's probably no accident that the economic term - depression - is the same as the psychiatric one. People tend to feel bad when what they have planned seems suddenly to come apart, when their ability to be effective in the world is challenged." He believes that the reason people become depressed when they lose their job, or fortune, is not just the obvious sense of despair which comes with financial insecurity, but self-blame. "When you're depressed, you feel hopeless, helpless and worthless; you feel like you deserve everything bad that happens to you. Those are the people who get suicidal."

Spiegel argues that Americans don't help themselves by obsessively watching the financial news channels. He describes how "we're all becoming minor manic-depressives" as people track the markets up and down. Research done after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, he also says, showed that those who watched the news for more than three hours a day suffered noticeably more than those who didn't. "The same is true with the Dow or the Nasdaq . . . you can drive yourself nuts because you're trying to relieve your anxiety, but you're actually increasing it."

Dainius Puras, a Lithuanian psychiatrist, explains how it is the uncertainty and unpredictability of the economic situation that have such a detrimental affect: "People don't like change." Puras knows the brutal reality well. Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in the world (39 per 100,000). It has also gone through a 20-year period of dramatic social and economic change since the fall of the Soviet Union.

He describes the reaction to freedom in 1989: "Many people could not manage to cope with this change, with this huge societal stress . . . [they] regressed to destructive or self-destructive behaviour." The stress, he says, prompted an unprecedented crisis of mortality, one that still exists. In Lithuania, with a population of just three million, 5,000 people die every year because of "external causes" - suicide, homicide, violence. He describes it as an epidemic.

Puras sees Lithuania's experience as a prophetic microcosm of the global crisis: a society undergoing enormous stress because of the effects of a toxic system, culminating in an “explosion" in the form of a financial crisis. He also points out a strange trend: the more severe the threat to human life, the better societies and individuals seem to fare in their mental health. "History shows that when it is a real crisis like war, or when people are starving, there is a huge decrease in mental health problems, including suicide. During the war you have to survive physically; existential problems are not so important. Suicide is mainly the price we pay for civilisation."

Figures for the UK support his theory - during the First World War, the suicide rate dropped to 8.5 per 100,000. It then leapt to 13.5 in the interwar years, and fell again during the Second World War to 9.2. Immediate, life-threatening crisis, Puras says, creates a sense of purpose: there's not as much time to worry about yourself.

The Samaritans in New York spotted a similar trend after 11 September 2001. The organisation's director, Alan Ross, says it anticipated a surge in calls after the attacks. It never came. There was what Ross calls a "collective, protective, survival factor" in the face of the direct threat. People rallied and supported each other. But since the financial crisis began, people have been calling the Samaritans in their thousands (the Mental Health Association of New York City recorded a 36 per cent increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline between 2007 and 2008).
“There's no question this is different," Ross says. "This is a long, ongoing, insidious undermining . . . It doesn't have a clear middle and end. It's hard to see who caused it, who the enemy is, or how it's going to be solved." And although it is affecting everyone, people feel it individually. Money worries are lonely, however many people might be having them at the same time.

According to Ross, the high-risk group is middle-aged white men. They are the group with the highest suicide rates, despite being, he says, "the group with the most education, the most political power, the most financial power". In Lithuania, 80 per cent of the suicide "epidemic" was middle-aged men taking their own lives. Puras argues that it's to do with the sudden loss of status. "They feel humiliated, then they are drinking and then they commit suicide." Both he and Ross are keen to point out, however, that suicide is a complex action - not usually the result of a single event such as losing your job, but a desperate, final act driven by any number of interlocking factors.

The spate of suicides in the US and the UK apparently provoked by the financial crisis (not just high-profile Wall Street and City financiers, but people who have lost savings, jobs, homes) has prompted commentators to coin a new word - "econocide". Ross calls it a "humbling and scary" period for people who might anyway be vulnerable. When Layard describes the recession as a "very tragic thing", he looks genuinely pained. "The world elite has let the world population down, hasn't it?" he says.

Spiegel points to the lack of support available for Americans who are struggling. "There's been a lot of stimulus money thrown around, but I have not heard of any of it being thrown into mental health support services." What's more, most people in the US get their health care through their employer's health insurance scheme. So once you are unemployed, you have to pay. "The very people who need help the most are the least likely to be able to afford it" - a cruel irony with which President Obama is wrestling, in the face of bitter opposition from Republicans and right-wing groups.

The British government is bringing forward an investment of £173m in talking therapies at the primary health-care level to cater for what it imagines will be a huge increase in demand. This year alone, 81 new cognitive therapy services will be set up across the country with employment support workers to help people get back into work. But will it be enough?

A new report by the Audit Commission points out that it is only now that the "second wave" of the downturn is hitting, and predicts an increase in alcoholism, addiction and dom­estic violence in areas particularly stricken by rising unemployment. Another report, by the Resolution Foundation, suggests that it is those earning the very least who are most often overlooked by both business and government initiatives (which focus mostly on those with no skills at all). Both sets of findings suggest that further action is required to protect the most vulnerable, and to prevent economic crisis morphing into deep social distress.

Sophie Elmhirst is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. To read her blog, visit: www.newstatesman.com/blogs

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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