7 January 2016

Suicide in Popular Culture, the Media and Society: An Unsympathetic and Insensitive Government

In an article in the Guardian on November 12th 2015, it was reported that the austerity measures by the Coalition government were a key factor in the rising levels of suicides amongst British men.8 The research was undertaken by students at Oxford, Bristol and Manchester universities where they suggest that the rise in suicide coincides with the economic decline between 2008 and 2010. 

With further austerity measures brought in by the succeeding Conservative government, including harsh welfare cuts and the failed fit for work program, there have been many widely reported stories of suicide as a result of people’s benefits being cut or being told to go back to work when they physically or mentally shouldn’t. In fact, the Department for Work and Pensions came under immense pressure to release the full report of suicides as a result of the fit for work program and disability payments being stopped. 

Time after time, the DWP were asked in the Commons, usually by SNP politicians, to release the report and show the public the statistics. During Prime Minister’s Questions on October 28th 2015, the SNP member of parliament for Moray, Angus Robertson, asked David Cameron for the second week in a row, “when the findings will be published”. Before asking the Prime Minister this question, Mr. Robertson told the story of Michael O’Sullivan - A disabled 60-year-old man who took his own life after an assessment by the DWP declared him to be fit for work. Mr. O’Sullivan had his disability benefits stopped after ten years of claiming.9 Mr. Robertson goes on to say “we know that at least 60 investigations have taken place into suicides following the cancellation of the benefits.” David Cameron answered Angus Robertson’s question by stating that the report would not be published as it contains “personal and medical information”. A report that was released prior to this exchange, on August 27th 2015 by the DWP, showed that 2,380 people died after their employment and support allowance (ESA) was stopped due to being found fit for work between December 2011 and February 2014.10

As reported in the Sunday Herald on August 23rd 2015, prior to Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform, DWP staff were given “suicide guidance” for “desperate calls on welfare reform”.11 If the lack of empathy here doesn't make you despise IDS or the Cameron government, the astonishing acknowledgement that their cuts might make people kill themselves, almost certainly will. We’ve come to expect such harsh treatment and cuts from Conservative governments but their acknowledgement about their policies potentially causing suicide is incredible. 

According to an article on the The Huffington Post UK about 590 additional suicides linked to the DWP’s Work Capability Assessment, it claims that there have been an extra “279,000 extra cases of mental ill health and 725,000 more prescriptions for antidepressants.”12 The research undertaken by the University of Liverpool suggests that these findings may have been “unintended” consequences of the Work Capability Assessment. If the cases of suicide were unintended, the DWP would not have given the suicide guidance to the DWP helpline. There’s unquestionably a direct parallel between the rise in suicides, the increased consumption of antidepressants and the introduction of the Work Capability Assessment. 


8 The Guardian ‘Austerity a factor in rising suicide rate among UK men – study’ 12th November 2015 http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/12/austerity-a-factor-in-rising-suicide-rate-among-uk-men-study
9 The Daily Mail ‘Coroner rules man with severe mental illness killed himself after he was found to be 'fit to work' in a government assessment and lost access to his disability benefits’ 21st September 2015 http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3243043/Coroner-rules-man-severe-mental-illness-killed-fit-work-government-assessment-lost-access-disability-benefits.html 
10 Mortality statistics: ESA, IB and SDA claimants August 27th 2015 https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/mortality-statistics-esa-ib-and-sda-claimants
11 Herald Scotland/Sunday Herald 'Suicide guidance' given to benefits staff preparing for desperate calls on welfare reform’ August 23rd 2015 http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13620988._Suicide_guidance__given_to_benefits_staff_preparing_for_desperate_calls_on_welfare_reform/
12 The Huffington Post UK ‘Almost 600 Suicides Could Be Related To DWP Work Assessments, Claims New Research’ November 16th 2015 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/11/16/dwp-suicides-assessments-research_n_8577038.html

Suicide In Society, The Media And Popular Culture


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