Suicides linked to austerity: from a psychocentric to a psychopolitical autopsy

Suicides linked to austerity: from a psychocentric to a psychopolitical autopsy

China Mills

On September 7th 2016, on Westminster bridge outside the House of Commons, disabled protestors gathered with banners full of the names and pictures of people who have died as a direct result of austerity driven welfare reforms. In 2013, in the UK, suicides reached a 13 year high, with population level data linking these suicides to austerity policies (Barr et al, 2015). According to some, an average of 80 people per month are dying in the UK after being found ‘fit to work’, highlighting the intense social cost and despair underlying reforms to the UK’s benefits system. Despite such damning statistics, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) keep no record of the circumstances surrounding these deaths, and were quick to point out that the statistics do not point to any causal link between changes to benefits and mortality. This position offers an indication of a disconnect between policymakers and the social consequences of the programmes they have been compelled to pursue by central government.

The evidence for a relationship between austerity and suicide is compelling. Suicide notes, coroners’ letters, and media coverage linking suicide to austerity are mounting up. Public archives of austerity suicide can be found on the websites of the Black Triangle Campaign and Calum’s list, which maintain lists of deaths linked to welfare reform, and media coverage. Since the financial crisis of 2008 local and national newspapers have run headlines such as: ‘Killed by benefits cuts: Starving soldier died ‘as result of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform’; and ‘Pregnant mother leaps to her death with five-month-old son in her arms after losing benefits’.

Analyzing newspaper coverage offers a way of understanding how the idea of ‘austerity suicide’ has entered public consciousness. It seems that even while many newspapers produce stigmatising narratives of anti-welfare ‘commonsense’, alongside these we also find counter discourse that identify austerity measures and suicide as political acts. Much newspaper coverage, in line with the World Health Organization’s guidelines (2000), avoids reporting suicide as an understandable response to social conditions, and instead tends to emphasize suicide as an outcome of ‘mental illness’ – as an individual act, rather than socially influenced problem. Similarly, much research uses psychological autopsy (interviewing family members, analysing suicide notes, and looking for signs of ‘mental illness’ in those who have died) as a technique to study suicide and this can further the sense that suicide is an individual’s desperate choice, rather than being located in stressful economic and social conditions.

The presentation of suicide as a personal story can be thought of as a ‘psychocentric’ way of understanding (Rimke 2016) which essentially locates the reasons for suicide inside people. But questions need to be raised about how useful this is as an approach for understanding suicides that occur against a backdrop of austerity and given massive changes in national rates of suicide that suggest deep social changes. Much appears to be overlooked when we assume that suicide must always result from ‘mental illness’. If much of the world’s population lives in conditions of chronic poverty and inequality that are killing them then there is a need to illuminate the environment from which ‘welfare reform suicides’ appear to represent a form of escape. Identifying the roots of this problem in this way move us from a psychocentric to a psychopolitical autopsy that anchors these acts in anxieties and fears generated by punitive welfare retrenchment and the stigmatization of being a recipient of benefits – a ‘burden’.

Reading what psychology and psychiatry (the psy-sciences) frame as ‘symptoms’ in this psychopolitical way has long been a strategy of the psychiatric survivor movement. In contrast, psychocentrism works to reconfigure wider social and economic problems into psychological problems, pushing individual clinical and therapeutic interventions (such as the rise in cognitive behavioural therapy and mandatory emotional fitness classes for welfare recipients in the UK) rather than tackling bigger questions of social inequality, lack of opportunity and competitive labour market practices.

Suicide is a significant social problem. Over 800,000 people commit suicide every year. Many of these are understood as ‘economic suicides’ because they take place against a background of structural adjustment policies, rampant neoliberal market-led reforms and settler-colonialism that serve to unsettle and dislocate the experiences of individuals within these economies. Despite this context, the approach to suicide that dominates globally (and is increasingly globalised through organisations like the World Health Organization)  is that suicide is a result of individual pathology and ‘mental illness’. This frames suicide as preventable through individual treatment, involving psychotherapeutics and pharmaceuticals, rather than the diagnosis of a need for improved welfare, workplace and educational investments. For example, in India, where hundreds of thousands of farmers have swallowed pesticides to escape from aggressive structural adjustment policies and agribusiness, the Government has responded by sending out teams of psychiatrists to rural areas, calling for increased access to anti-depressants for farmers, and turning to genetics to look for a pre-disposition to suicide in farmers.

Back to London. In 2015, Mary Hassell, the senior coroner for inner North London wrote directly to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) claiming that the suicide of Michael O’Sullivan, a disabled man who hanged himself, had been a ‘direct result of being ruled “fit to work”’. The coroner’s verdict of Michael O’Sullivan’s suicide is seen as ‘ground-breaking’ by groups like Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) because the DWP, the media and charities such as the Samaritans usually frame suicide as complex with no single cause, meaning suicide could never be directly linked to austerity nor could the government be found to be responsible.

While people’s decision to commit suicide may well be complex, the mobilisation of this complexity by the DWP in response to suicides linked to austerity, seems to work to prevent recognition of government culpability in such suicides. Despite denying culpability, the DWP have, since 2012, carried out approximately 60 peer reviews (or what have recently been renamed ‘internal process reviews’) of welfare reform complaints, 49 of which involve the death of a ‘customer’, with 40 of these involving suicide. These reviews are carried out when suicide or alleged suicide is ‘associated with a DWP activity’, according to its internal guidance. None of these reviews have been published or made publicly available.

If these reviews employed a psychopolitical analysis what would they look like? How do benefit cuts kill? How does austerity come to be lived and felt in people’s minds and bodies? Much newspaper coverage of austerity suicide tells painful stories of long battles with the system, appeals processes, letters written to the DWP, and medical reassessments that eventually ended in suicide. These articles hint at the distressed psychic life of individuals facing austerity and which are often overlooked by bland pronouncements about suicide rarely having a ‘single cause’. This points to the need for a way of understanding welfare reform suicides not as a symptom of ‘mental illness’ but as a symptom of our political economy and how policy choices like austerity, always there in the background of many people’s lives, wears people out (in body and mind), as a nagging anxiety that can burst forth in different intensities at different times.

Activism from disabled people has been far from fruitless. In 2012, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) submitted testimonies to the UN on the impact on disabled people of welfare reform policies. The subsequent confidential investigation into the effects of the coalition’s welfare cuts is the first of its kind and its findings are due for publication in 2017.

Instead of the secret reviews of ‘death of a customer’ carried out by the DWP, we need public analysis of austerity suicides that is attuned to context and able to illuminate culpability of government reforms, while still retaining an understanding of the complexity of suicide. A key move would be for both the DWP and the media to move away from only analyzing suicides as individual cases, and in always assuming suicide is a result of ‘mental illness’.

While some ‘austerity deaths’ may be covered in the media, the majority of deaths of people living in poverty rarely make the news. The pervasive stigmatization of welfare claimants by the government and the media as economic burdens is an identity that comes to be internalized by many whose suicide notes, and their family’s accounts, highlight feelings of worthlessness and shame. This is not a coincidence. People are killing themselves because they feel exactly the way society is telling them they should feel – a burden. Put another way, people are killing themselves because austerity, and society, is killing them.


China Mills is Lecturer in Critical Educational Psychology at the University of Sheffield, UK.

Image: Roger Blackwell. Workers and disabled people protesting outside Norfolk County Hall against Norfolk County Council cuts to services, October 26th 2015. CC BY 2.0