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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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain