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Killer facts
Suicide rates were falling across much of Europe before the financial crisis as employment grew. Now they’re rising. Ryan Gallagher reports
Earlier this month 77-year-old Dimitris Christoulas walked to Syntagma Square near the Greek parliament in Athens and never returned. Witnesses watched as the retired pharmacist, carrying a handgun in one pocket and a note in the other, stood on a patch of grass below a tree during the morning rush hour and shot himself once in the head. The note he was carrying said he wanted to die in dignity before having to “scrounge for food”. It was a shocking reminder that, during an economic crisis, there is a human cost that can often result in tragedy. The suicide of Christoulas was not an isolated case. Across Europe hundreds have taken their own lives for reasons reportedly linked to the impact of the crisis. Statistics published two weeks ago in Italy revealed there were almost 400 suicides in the country related to economic factors between 2009 and 2010. In Spain from 2006 to 2010, suicides rose by over 55 per cent. There have also been increases in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, while Britain witnessed a sharp rise of
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6 per cent between 2007 and 2009 that health experts said was “almost certainly” linked to the financial crisis. From Athens to Rome, London to Lancashire, there are similar, sombre stories. There was the Salford mother, Linda Knott, who killed herself in May last year after being made redundant from her community centre job. The Burnley man, Craig Monk, who told a neighbour he was worried about his benefits being cut before he was found hanging in October. And the 21-year-old Darwen jobseeker Vicky Harrison, who took a fatal overdose in 2010 after a string of unsuccessful job applications. It makes for uncomfortable reading but, while the crisis continues, the list is likely to grow. “The unemployed are twice more prone to kill themselves than somebody who isn’t unemployed – so if you have a big rise in unemployment you expect to get a rise in suicides,” says Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield. “The suicide rate doesn’t actually rise among well-

“The unemployed are twice more prone to kill themselves than somebody who isn’t unemployed.”

paid groups like bankers; it’s the people who the bankers employ. Or young people who are not in employment at all.” An academic paper co-authored by Dorling in 1999 found that “there were significant associations between unemployment and suicide in both males and females”. Latest government statistics show that there are currently 2.65 million people unemployed in Britain, almost 40 per cent of whom (1.04 million) are young people aged 16-24. Unemployment peaked late last year

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at 2.67 million, the highest level for more than 16 years. According to Ellen Bloomer, research fellow at the University College London’s Institute of Health Equity, the level of suicides in an economic crisis is in part related to the strength of a given country’s welfare policies. “Differences in the level and type of social welfare have been linked with the suicide rate, with countries that spend more on social protection – such as Austria – facing a less severe impact on suicides,” Bloomer

says. “This suggests that an increase in the suicide rate might be more likely to occur where the government is following a package of austerity measures that affect the number of recipients and the adequacy of the welfare they receive.” In Britain, increased unemployment has been paired with radical reform of the welfare system, which has resulted in 11,000 people per week on sickness and disability benefits being put through controversial work capability assessments (WCAs). As The Big

Issue in the North reported in November (issue 901), a governmentcommissioned independent report into WCAs found that they could cause “psychological distress with effects on physical and mental health”. At the same time, NHS statistics have revealed that annual prescriptions for anti-depressants rose by 28 per cent between 2007 and 2011 to more than 43 million. And mental health charity Mind says a phone helpline it runs has received a growing number of calls from people

Mourners at the funeral earlier this month of 77-yearold retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas, who shot himself in central Athens after financial troubles pushed him over the edge. Photo: Reuters/John Kolesidis
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“Vulnerable people are being squeezed on all sides.” Farmer

CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENTS
In 2002, an academic journal article coauthored by University of Sheffield professor Danny Dorling posed the controversial question: “Do conservative governments make people want to die?” Citing an Australian study that suggested that during the 20th century conservative governments in Australia were associated with higher suicide rates, Dorling and his co-authors argued: “Similar results – with respect to attempted suicide – have previously been reported for Britain... The fact that suicide rates are affected by the political, economic and cultural environment in which people in England and Wales live has been demonstrated many times. “Even very short-term effects have been noted, such as suicide rates rising by 17 per cent in the four weeks after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. “Suicide rates in Britain have tended to follow economic trends such as the unemployment rate, but that in turn is partly a product of political decisions and it is clearly not by chance that the unemployment rate in Britain peaked during long periods of largely Conservative administration during the 1930s and 1980s.”

worried about benefit cuts, money and unemployment. “Vulnerable people living with mental health problems are being squeezed on all sides as they face cuts to benefits and services as well as a very challenging job market,” says Paul Farmer, Mind’s chief executive. “Whilst we understand that the government has had to make difficult financial decisions in order to reduce the deficit, it is worrying that kneejerk cuts are being made which will have long term consequences for people’s mental health. This has an

MEN AT RISK
Last year, research published in the Lancet, the world’s leading general medical journal, showed how a 35 per cent increase in employment rates across Europe from 2007 to 2009 was paired with a sharp drop in suicide rates. Suicide rates had been falling in the years prior to the financial crisis but began rising following the onset of economic turmoil. Of the ten countries included in the Lancet’s analysis, only Austria had a lower suicide rate in 2009 than 2007. All other countries experienced at least a 5 per cent increase over the same period. Countries with the most severe decline in their financial situations had greater rises in suicide levels (17 per cent for Greece and 13 per cent for Ireland). In 2010, suicides marginally declined in the UK, but were still more than 4 per cent higher than prior to the spike in 2008. Statistics show the group most at risk of suicide is men aged 3039. Of the 5,608 reported suicides in the UK in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 75 per cent were males. Stephen Platt, Samaritans trustee and professor of health policy research at the University of Edinburgh, says: “During the last recession in 2008, there was a sharp rise in suicide, which bucked the overall downward trend. “Unemployment, job fears and financial worries lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and feelings of hopelessness, which in turn increase the likelihood that someone will think that their life isn’t worth living.”

economic cost as well as a human one, as health and social services pick up the bill when people’s mental health deteriorates and they need support and treatment.” Last year it emerged jobcentre staff had been sent guidelines including a “six-point plan”, which advised: “Some customers may say they intend to self-harm or kill themselves as a threat or a tactic to ‘persuade’, others will mean it. It is very hard to distinguish between the two… For this reason, all “Differences in declarations must the level and be taken type of social seriously.” to the According welfare have Department of Work and been linked Pensions, any with the benefit claimants suicide rate.” who suggest that they may be thinking of suicide or self-harm are made aware there is help available to them, and if necessary staff will alert emergency assistance. “We have policies and procedures in place to support people with mental health conditions and have already made improvements to the work capability assessment to better cater for those with mental health issues,” a DWP spokesperson says. “The welfare system must support those with the most need – those who have a health condition or disability that means they cannot

work and those who do not have any other means of financial support.” With rates of unemployment in Britain and the rest of Europe showing little sign of improvement, the grim reality is that mental health issues and suicides linked to the economic crisis look set to continue. The Samaritans, the charity that provides emotional support to people contemplating suicide, says calls it receives about financial issues have doubled in the last three years and now one in every five is about job concerns, housing problems, debt and other financial worries. Recognising the scale of the problem, Sir Michael Marmot, one of the world’s leading experts on health inequality, issued a stark warning during a speech delivered at the Westminster Social Policy Forum on 18 April. Describing European austerity programmes as a “ghastly experiment”, Marmot said: “European governments have been told they must screw their economies down so far that people are killing themselves. If unemployment rises as a result of government policy – that is an emergency.” If you are affected by any of the issues in this article and would like to talk to someone in confidence for further information and support, please call Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393 or the Samaritans support service on 08457 90 90 90

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THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH · 30 APR - 6 MAY 2012

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