Last week it was #WorldSuicidePreventionDay – social media was awash with supportive messages being thrown into the ether for whoever might see/need them, or to virtue signal. We are told it is ok not to be ok, that we should be kind and that we should talk about mental health, and not shy away from talking about suicide. I would suggest though, that we also talk about material consequences of political decisions, public services and community resources. We need to talk about personal/political responses to policy decisions.
Brexit, particularly in the event of no-deal, has been referred to as ‘political suicide’ incessantly since the UK public voted to leave the EU in the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum summer 2016. David Cameron, Prime Minister at the time of the referendum, was taken by surprise by the unanticipated result of the (ostensibly) non-binding referendum and resigned. According to some, his mismanagement of the referendum, and failure to secure a ‘remain’ majority amounted to ‘career suicide’. Having promised a referendum in his manifesto to address the increasing popularity of UKIP and general rise of right-wing populism in the UK, he did not get a result that he could work with, and exited no. 10, leaving his colleagues to scrap amongst themselves in desperate bids for the top job, and the country on a chaotic cruise to ruin. His autobiographical book, ‘For the Record’, is released tomorrow, describes his time in office and is expected to be very successful. Though the Brexit debacle has left Mr Cameron feeling ‘hugely depressed’, a new career/income stream has blossomed from the ashes of his political career which undermines the finality of suicide as any kind of meaningful metaphor.
The ensuing chaos of Brexit preparation and no doubt post-divorce drama is inevitably going to hurt most the people that do not stalk the dark wood corridors of the house of commons insulated by wealth and asset management, but those already experiencing poverty and hardship. In this respect, the expected impact of exiting the EU is forecast to mirror those of the 2008 financial recession when countries including the UK experienced increases in government debts and budget deficits. To address this, the UK government instigated draconian monetary policies as an intervention. These included large cuts in welfare and public spending and the privatisation of a collection of services, the policies have been referred to collectively as fiscal austerity measures. It has been argued on this blog, along with numerous other sites and media sources, that these austerity measures were ideologically driven rather than necessary, and have lengthened, rather than shortened the wider recession, and actively caused harm. Experts predict that Brexit will result in similar policies, and similar consequences as the recession has done for the UK.
One of the most distressing, and increasingly reported results of austerity has been its fatal impacts, which include starvation, limited access to necessary medication and/or services and suicide. According to the British Medical Journal, austerity had been linked to 120,000 extra deaths between 2010 and its time of publication in 2017. Until the financial crash, Britain’s suicide rate had been decreasing. Since 2008, however, it is suggested that there have been up to 1000 additional deaths from suicide and an additional 30-40,000 attempts. Sociologists, along with other researchers, have identified a number of recession-triggered issues for increased suicide rates such as under/unemployment, loneliness and isolation. An associated trigger for middle-aged men relates to masculinity and identity, and for middle aged women, for whom the suicide rate is at its highest level in a decade, the ‘sandwich’ pressures they face; caring for children and ageing parents while balancing work, in a context of reduced household budgets and diminishing public services. The number of women dying from suicide continues to grow, causing concerns that this might be an emerging ‘trend’. Brexit, unsurprisingly, is expected to have a disproportionately negative impact on women so it is unlikely that this potential trend will be arrested.
An irony in the vote for Brexit – likely to return the UK to a post-recession-style dip – is that there are links between economic distress and increased support for right-wing political platforms, such as the platform UKIP/Brexit Party have so successfully utilised to cultivate and direct feelings of resentment and discontent. Politics in the UK are at risk of being defined by ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ politics, rather than focusing on the health and happiness of individuals, communities and the population at large. The EU did not, and does not, guarantee population health, despite offering important protections. The UK was part of the EU and it did not offer any protection to the UK population from their own government opting for fiscal austerity in the wake of the recession. No protection from increased welfare conditionality or the closure of libraries and leisure centres. Membership did not stem the growing popularity of right-wing xenophobic rhetoric that was subsequently harnessed to bring hard borders inward from the edge of Europe to an island inside that outer edge. The personal is political, and the political is personal. Every suicide then, completed or attempted, is a political suicide. Referring to events that are not suicide, using a suicide metaphor, is an insult to the survivors, family and friends of those who have died, and potentially to those who may be contemplating suicide. Despair is a public health issue. In this climate of uncertainty, fear and anger, when we discuss political suicide it should be in terms of how to lessen despair, and re-nourish communities, not the career furthering, career-destroying playground antics of our governing class.