A system that breeds despair

An international perspective from one of our contributors:

I recently read about a disabled man who hung himself because he could not bear living in poverty. The same article spoke of a man with a heart condition who was told he was fit to work and had his Incapacity Benefit withdrawn in November but died that December from a heart attack: one of 150 deaths last year related to sick and disabled people who had been subjected to the bullying of the notorious profit-making company ATOS. Helen & Mark Mullins, who received no financial assistance used to walk 12 miles a day to a Coventry soup kitchen. A local reporter filmed Mark who said: “They have no problems suspending benefits. They just put a tick in a box and they alter your life.” A suicide pact ended their lives but it was the cuts that killed them.
These stories reminds me of a poem written eighty years ago by the German socialist Bertolt Brecht (roughly translated):
There are many ways to kill
 
You can stick a knife into a man’s belly
 
Take the bread from his table
 
Refuse to heal disease
 
Place people in poor housing
 
Even work them to death
 
Drive people to suicide
 
Or lead them into war
 
Few of these are banned by our government
How relevant those words are today. A coroner’s report might say “death self inflicted” or “no other party was involved”. It is true that mental illness or traumatic life experiences might lead to people ending their own lives. There have been some sensationalized stories of “death pacts” and Internet inspired suicides. The press loves such cases and stories about murders, knife crime and shootings. Yet suicide is a far bigger and largely under-reported cause of death among young men. The recession has produced a sharp spike in suicide rates almost everywhere. Figures published in The Lancet show an 8% increase in the UK suicide rate between 2007 and 2009. The latest figures (Office for National Statistics) show that this trend has continued. Since the economic crisis broke in 2008 rates have risen in nearly every country except Sweden and Finland. In Algeria, Portugal, Greece, Tunisia and Italy suicide is a growing problem, with deaths three times higher among men than women. Some believe this is because men don’t talk as openly as women about their problems, but it also reflects the pervading “male role”. Men feel they are expected to be wage earners. They suffer from a perceived loss of pride and dignity. While traditional views on gender still hold sway there has been a shift away from many ideas about “community” and solidarity. Tory and Labour leaders have been keen to talk about “scroungers” and people living off others (talk about hypocrisy). Capitalism always blames the victims and now, more than ever, claiming benefits due to joblessness and disability is seen as scrounging rather than being a right.
Richard Colwill, a spokesman for mental health charity Sane says: “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. Life events like redundancy, bankruptcy and the relationship breakdowns that often follow can cause bouts of mental illness”.
Before the financial crisis hit three years ago, Greece had the lowest suicide rate in Europe at 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. It now has almost double that number. Attempted suicides have also increased. Debts, joblessness, job insecurity are all cited as key reasons, but it is also the sense that the future holds nothing better. In Greece Samaritan-style hotlines also receive more calls from women aged between 30 and 50 and men between 40 and 45 despairing over economic problems. In addition to real economic hardship there is the  loss of pride and dignity, plus increasing disorientation. The Guardian quoted psychotherapist Katiana Spyrides: “The crisis is clearly aggravating family relations …. we’ve seen increases in the stress levels of children and adolescents who face new problems, such as seeing their parents imprisoned for economic crimes, or who because of the situation have had to compromise their emotional and other needs.” As poverty in Greece deepens and unemployment tops an unprecedented 18% (over 40% among 25 to 40 year-olds) Greek society seems to be unravelling. There are more than 20,000 homeless people in central Athens alone.
Portugal is heading down the same route. Assistant Secretary of State for Health Fernando Leal da Costa says “suicide has become a public healthcare problem”. Deaths among young unemployed men have increased but there has also been a rise among suicides of the elderly, many of whom find themselves alone and with no state or family support. Unemployment is once again driving people to work in other countries.
Thus people are finding themselves in a place where nothing seems certain anymore, as if the world around them has gone mad. Economic crisis turns into a mental health crisis. This is the despair that capitalism produces – a system that is sick and rotten to the core.
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