It is an inconvenient truth that the government has failed to address and the media have barely covered: the number of people killing themselves is back on the rise.
In 2008, 5,706 people killed themselves in the UK, an average of almost 16 deliberate deaths a day. After close to a decade of annual declines, recession triggered a sharp spike in suicide. Recent figures published in The Lancet show that the UK suicide rate increased 8% between 2007 and 2009. The latest Office for National Statistics figures suggest a similar rise.
The problem is predominantly a male one, with three times as many men killing themselves as women. It is also a trend not confined to the UK. Suicide rates have spiked across Europe since 2008, with Greece, in particular, experiencing staggering increases. 2010 saw a 25% rise in suicide, according to the Greek parliament. In October, the country’s health minister warned that early signs suggest a further 40% jump in 2011.
Stephen Platt, a professor at Edinburgh University who has been studying suicide behaviour for 30 years, fears a decade of unusually high suicide rates. “If you look at the research literature about suicide and economic recession, it’s pretty clear that there is a relationship,” he says. “The idea of a lost decade is quite possible.”
It is the instability of recession that creates this link, according to Richard Colwill, a spokesman for the mental health charity Sane. “No one should be surprised that factors such as unemployment and job insecurity can push people who may be already vulnerable to take their own lives,” he says. “Life events like redundancy, bankruptcy and the relationship breakdowns that often follow can cause bouts of mental illness. You expect to see all these issues start to rise.”
One person who knows first hand how damaging redundancy can be is Denis Robinson, a 42-year-old hairdresser from Waterloo, London. In June 2009, he was offered the perfect job: creative director at an exciting new startup. Robinson was promised control over training, staffing, budgets and the possibility of equity in the company. “It was everything I’d ever hoped for,” he says.
It wasn’t long after starting that he realised it was too good to be true. The company was riddled with hidden debt and struggling to ride out the recession. In June 2010, the salon was sold off and Robinson promptly dismissed.
“I was utterly floored,” he says. “I was broke. I felt no future at 42 years old. Having worked for 24 years towards this particular goal, I felt a complete failure.” Robinson’s hairdressing career had previously helped him through the trauma of becoming HIV positive in 2007 and being diagnosed with depression. Without a job, his source of pride was gone.
“The one thing that I had been defined by was taken away,” he recalls. “I was manic. I lost a stone and a half in four weeks. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t even sit down and amend my CV. Just looking at it made me think: ‘There’s no point living.'”
In October 2010, Robinson gathered together a load of painkillers and cheap vodka, intent on killing himself. It was only the thought of how his mother would react, and the subsequent help of Maytree Respite Centre, that dragged Robinson back from the brink.
Maytree’s support was clearly crucial in saving Robinson’s life: listening without judgment, challenging negative assumptions and helping to create optimism for the future. But with the UK’s economic future looking ever bleaker after the chancellor downgraded growth and announced six more years of cuts, how will charities that provide such support cope?
“The big concern is the double whammy,” explains Colwill. “At a time when we would reasonably expect there to be an increase in demand for mental health support, we are seeing cuts to services across the board.” With stretched services already seeing people “fall through the cracks”, he fears the fault lines can only widen.
Platt believes that the key is to learn from the past and, in particular, start tackling people’s access to the means of suicide. In the 1950s, death by domestic gas accounted for around half of all suicides. But throughout the 1960s, the introduction of non-toxic gas into British kitchens saw thousands of lives saved.
“It’s as if when people consider suicide [they] think about doing it in a particular way,” Platt explains. “If you remove a culturally common method, there isn’t an immediate substitution and it tends to reduce overall suicide.” If paracetamol was only available in blister packs, making impulsive overdosing more difficult, or mental health clinics removed features that could potentially be used for hanging, the impact on suicide rates could be huge.
As the third sector strives to offset the rising suicide rate with diminishing resources, the government has remained alarmingly silent, having made no major announcement about how to confront this issue. The suicide prevention strategy for England, due to be published in early 2012, may change that.
If not, there is no guarantee that the support that saved Robinson’s life will in future be available to people having similar thoughts. “I chose to fight and I’m glad that I did,” he says. “Having got to the bottom, everything I now have that is good, I’m grateful for. I think I’d forgotten that.”
• The Mental Health Foundation provides information for anyone having suicidal thoughts, or who knows someone who is. To talk to someone urgently, the Samaritans is available 24-hours-a-day on 08457 90 90 90; or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Samaritans’ website.