The link between benefit cuts and suicide can’t be ignored

Studies have shown a connection between fiscal constraint and an increase in suicide. PA/Dominic Lipinski

Stephanie Bottrill, aged 53, became another suicide statistic and a grim reminder of the harmful impact of the UK welfare reforms last month, according to reports. In her suicide note, it was said she explicitly blamed the introduction of the recent “spare-room subsidy”, better known as the bedroom tax, for her economic plight.

Such was her desperation at being unable to find the extra £80 a month demanded of her for under-occupying her home, as reported by the press, she threw herself in front of a lorry on the M6 motorway. She left a note for her son Steven, 27, saying “Don’t blame yourself for me ending my life. The only people to blame are the Government, no one else.”

The apparent severity of Stephanie Bottrill’s economic stress was not a one-off tragic event. It was further evidence of the human cost of the government’s austerity programme, and of the clearly demonstrated statistical link between fiscal constraint, diminished social protection, and an increase in the prevalence of suicide, as highlighted by recent research.

The link between incidence of suicide and lack of social integration and support was established as far back as 1897, in the seminal work of sociology’s founding father, Emile Durkheim. He saw that the suicide rate was highest in those areas experiencing changes and where traditional protections and structures were breaking down or under threat.

To cut benefit spending by 20%, the Welfare Reform Act 2012 now sees the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance (which was non-means tested and enabled disabled people to meet the additional costs of living with a disability) with the Personal Independence Payment. The impact of losing the DLA, which effectively offset the personal, practical and social barriers serving to “disable” an individual with an impairment, was considered so financially devastating, that in a recent survey of 900 disabled people, 9% said losing the payment could make life not worth living.

The following three verbatim comments were representative of many drawn from the same study, and offer explicit and harrowing testimony of suicidal intention, if exposed to such economic pressure.

I would kill myself to stop being a burden on my family. If I didn’t do this I would end up homeless and in an inevitable decline anyway. Might as well get the horror over with.

I would not be able to go to work I would not be able to see my family or friends. Therefore I would not want to live.

My general health would deteriorate even more than it is. I would have nothing to live for. Very strong thoughts of suicide would be ever present, or I may just give up and die anyway

Yet, as bio-ethicists Tom Beauchamp and James Childress point out, it is extremely problematic even categorising acts as suicide, especially when considering people with severe impairments and long-term illness. They compare an individual who refuses to accept an artificial heart with someone, who “intentionally shot himself with a pistol while on the artificial heart”, and argue that whilst the latter would be classified as suicide, the former example wouldn’t. Put simply, many people with a disability can kill themselves through self-neglect, and not be counted as suicides.

This means existing statistical evidence is likely to severely underestimate suicidal occurrence in fragile older and/or disabled people, or people with life threatening illnesses.

Last year, the attempted suicide of a benefits claimant, who had received a letter that said his sickness benefit was to be cut off, triggered an internal memo within the Department of Work and Pensions that warned staff of the high suicide risk of disabled benefits claimants.

It is a macabre thought, but this seems to suggest hastened death is becoming such a foreseeable by-product of current welfare changes. It is now in the process of being incorporated incrementally and implicitly into policy guidelines.

This prompts the question; to what extent the risk of suicide among benefit-dependent disabled people is now foreseeable? So, are we in a place where the vulnerable are now recklessly disregarded as “surplus to requirements” and ultimately disposable? When the evidence points so clearly to the relationship between deprivation and suicide, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

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