Suicide rates go up under conservative governments
Too many know at the deepest level, the black hopelessness of suicide: its words and feelings. It is the most profound expression of despair that can be enacted by an individual. I have heard the testimonies from people contemplating suicide and from those left behind after suicide; the aptly named survivors. Around six people suicide every day in Australia. Males, outnumber females, [in this sad statistic], by approximately three times as many. The numbers of those effected by a single suicide can be modestly estimated as at least five more for each death. This does not even encompass the toll exacted from suicide attempts and linked depression.
After eleven years working in suicide prevention, and responding to the desperation of those who saw no way out including, those who have tried and been supported to continue to live,I needed out myself. It became too hard to defend the worth of living against the torrent and outpouring of despair
So often I had focused on interconnectedness, the reduction of social isolation and affirmation of the worth of each single life. But this may be only part of the greater picture.
It seems that what governments do, or fail to do, to protect their citizens, does matter.
Studies of suicide rates under conservative governments compared to what I shall term, socially responsible governments, have shown that suicide rates go up under conservative governments.
Not only has this been linked recently in the US to austerity measures but also to Australian and British statistics on suicide. According to an article in the New York Times it’s not just the relationship between unemployment and poverty that kills, it’s the removal of safety nets .
Suicide rates in Greece soared under austerity, rising by eighteen per cent in 2010 to twenty five per cent higher in 2011. Cost cutting sackings,and pension losses, are sited as causal.
Researchers David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu report that:
Iceland avoided a public health disaster even though it experienced, in 2008, the largest banking crisis in history, relative to the size of its economy. After three main commercial banks failed, total debt soared, unemployment increased ninefold, and the value of its currency, the krona, collapsed.
Iceland opted to not implement austerity measures, instead to slowly pay off the debt. Its suicide rate did not increase.
At the time that I was working at Lifeline Melbourne, both conservative governments, in Victoria under Premier Jeff Kennett and Federally under Prime Minister John Howard bequeathed funding for suicide prevention programs. Incidentally, the Kennet program for youth suicide prevention, was axed by the next conservative government of Ted Baillieu. But the original funding, by wiser conservatives may have been in response to the increase in suicide rates in the late 1990’s. Or perhaps to an awareness of the rumoured ‘curse of conservatism’ that spikes the suicide rates?
So why might this be happening under a conservative government and less so under non conservative governments. As someone who worked for years in the not for profit sector and health industry, I recall the expectant angst of cuts in relation to welfare health and support services. These were dreaded, with the change to a conservative government Invariably the cuts came, with the cries of justification and of saving the economy. The tough measures were mostly directed at the poor and powerless, and at hapless public servants
This was all done in the name of fiscal responsibility. However oddly less often directed at the upper echelons. The battle for the domestic dollar is usually waged in lower socioeconomic fields. For example the rumoured raising of the tax free threshold from $6000 to $18000
Or Joe Hockey’s menacing denouncement of the ‘age of entitlement.’ In his sights were
“Government spending on a range of social programs including education, health, housing, subsidized transport, social safety nets and retirement benefits that have reached extraordinary levels as a percentage of GDP.” Now we may also add to this list, programs for sustainable living and reduction adaptation and mitigation of climate change.
I add this as a failing of the state to assume any responsibility for the most vulnerable of all: future generations who have no vote.
The trimming of this nomenclature is not merely semantic or an economy of words. When you take words from Government Ministerial Portfolios, the lines of accountability and responsibility become blurred. To whom do interest groups appeal? How will the new National Disability Insurance Scheme [NDIS] be administered without a dedicated ministry.
When issues arise as they must, who is the go to person?
Glaringly there is no Science Minister and no Climate Change Minister. Because the official stance of this government is that climate change is not worthy of its concern. There is however a Sports Minister. Nor is there a designated person to reduce homelessness. Tony Abbott has said that homelessness is a lifestyle choice and that if elected he would not support the current homelessness program.
The Climate Commission that empowered the public with information on the science of climate change, has been dismantled. Foreign Aid has been cut by over $4 billion. Thus reducing our help as a rich nation, to the poorer nations.
So why might suicide rates rise, under a conservative austerity geared government?
Edwin Shneidman, who analyzed hundreds of suicide notes found the following themes were expressed. There is unbearable pain and the desire to escape form the pain, not necessarily a wish to die. Thinking becomes constricted and problems appear insurmountable. The suicidal person feels despair about the future combined with feelings of helplessness, worthlessness hopelessness and of isolation.
If the community and the state do not offer a helping hand, to the vulnerable, we leave them to grapple alone with a sense of worthlessness. We in effect say that they are not worth much. Suicide is strongly linked to depression, mental illness, trauma, grief, loss, substance abuse and gambling. Ironically we are all vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life; but in the brave new world of neo conservative philosophy, individuals are seen as solely.
responsible for their own misfortune. Government is to be kept small with regard to the so called welfare state. But as Tony Abbott has declared,Australia is under new management and is now open for business.
This conjures up a metaphor of the state as big business, not as a guardian of its citizen’s well being.
What will happen to the twelve thousand public servants Abbott has threatened to sack, as though hitherto they have been a useless drain on the budget? As though their lives, families, careers and well being were of no account. Why have they been treated so appallingly as to have their intended axing trumpeted on the air waves, as though their employment was abusing Australia’s economy?
Ultimately governments that lack compassion, set the bar very low for the entire community and the wider world we all inhabit. They model that this is a world where the so called strongest and the bullies survive and flourish, while the poor and vulnerable of our community and the world are to be abandoned.
I for one would find this an exceedingly depressing place to inhabit, so perhaps for some it does become an impossible place, in which to go on living.
Lyn Bender is a psychologist in private practice. She is a former manager of Lifeline Melbourne and is working on her first novel.