Friday 18 February 2011

Should we be discussing Suicide in debate over cuts?

Laura is 29 years old. Until a few years ago, she was a vet, just qualified and looking forward to her future. She was engaged to Paul and they were planning their wedding. She lived a pretty "normal" life, in a "normal" home and enjoyed walking holidays and playing "cool auntie" with her young nieces and nephews.

Her wages had improved! Finally, after all those years of studying, she could afford the odd luxury. She and Paul treated themselves to a weekend away to Barcelona when she got her first "proper job" and soon after, she'd bought a lovely new car. 


For a while though, she'd been getting shooting pains in her hips and knees. crouching on concrete floors, treating sick animals, or hours in the cold and damp waiting for a new foal had become very uncomfortable. One day, she found she physically couldn't get up from the floor and had to wait for someone to come and help. 

She went to her GP a few times, but he didn't seem to think much was wrong. He suggested she take paracetamol for the pain and take it easy in the cold. 

She carried on doing her job, but it became harder and harder. Soon, getting out of bed took 5 or 10 minutes - her joints felt stiff and painful and she seemed constantly exhausted. She started to hobble a bit, embarrassed, but unable to help it. 

When she got in from work all she wanted to do was fall into bed. She took all the paracetamol she could and  even added in some ibruprofen, but things just got worse and worse. She never wanted to go out to dinner or have sex, walking holidays seemed unimaginable and she was always irritable with pain or exhaustion. Despite feeling exhausted all the time, she got less and less sleep. As the pain increased, she could no longer find any way of getting comfortable or relaxing. 

It took a year or so before her doctor referred her to a specialist. By then, she could barely walk, shuffling like an old lady. Her skin was pale with exhaustion, her hair was dull and the dark circles under her eyes made her look haunted. The consultant ran a few tests and then gave her the news that she had Rheumatoid Arthritis. What's more, it was a particularly virulent case of early onset disease. It was degenerative and her symptoms would only get worse. He told her there was no cure and the words rang in her ears. There were however treatments they could use that might slow the progress of the disease or even bring about remission. 

The first treatment made no difference at all. The second gave her debilitating, splitting headaches and the third (which she was warned carried a risk of brain tumours) made her vomit almost constantly. The consultant finally prescribed the strongest drug available to him and Laura had to learn to give herself injections in her tummy every two weeks to take the medication. For a while, the injections seemed to work, but then they just stopped. There was nothing else to try and she simply fought on through the pain, taking strong opiate painkillers when she couldn't bear it any more. 

She had to stop working. Her precious job, her animals, her ambitions and dreams all seemed to be slipping away. She applied for Employment Support Allowance ( ESA. Previously Incapacity Benefit) but was found  fit for work after a humiliating "assessment" where she was asked to touch her toes and climb some little wooden steps. 

Sadly, Paul couldn't cope. Life had changed so completely, he no longer recognised the woman he lived with. She wasn't happy-go-lucky or carefree any more and their romance slowly fell apart. In the end, he left her. Their home had to be sold and Laura found herself applying for housing benefit and renting a tiny one bed flat above a shop. The stairs were like a mountain now, so she rarely went anywhere at all any more. She found it increasingly hard to have a shower or cook a meal - her fingers were stiff and swollen with arthritis too by now and the local council were only able to provide care for a few hours twice a week. 

Her sisters couldn't care for her very much - they had busy lives of their own and she missed the kid's laughter and rolling around on the floor with them or playing tickles or chase. Suddenly she had so much time but nothing to fill it with. 

It seemed like every day she had to fill in another form or attend anther work programme, but at the same time, all she heard on the news was that most sick or disabled people were scroungers or skivers. She started to weep too often for her old life and had lost so much so quickly, that she struggled to deal with the barrage of emotions she felt. 

Where she used to be self-sufficient, now she was reliant, where she used to be energetic, now she was exhausted. Luxuries were forgotten and she worried about putting the heating on or buying food - after her rent had been paid, she only had just under £400 to pay for everything else.  

Sometimes she wondered what on earth had gone wrong? How had she gone from a vibrant, happy young woman with a whole life of plans ahead of her into this? 


For a few days there has been a debate over whether it is counter-productive to discuss the risk of rising suicide rates in the broader debate over cuts to sickness and disability benefits. Today, a passionate campaigner for disabled rights wrote this article for the Guardian. I agree with very much of what she says, but I don't agree that talk of suicide is being used in this debate as a tool or a threat. I think that given stories like Laura's it is a worrying possibility. This is a group of people just like Laura, who already face terrible challenges and I do believe some are unable to cope with the extra guilt and fear they also now face. 

I found the comments that followed the article depressing. So many seemed to think that stories of despair and hopelessness were exaggerated or that talk of ending one's life was some form of militancy used to blackmail the government with. 

Since I've started writing this blog, I've been shocked by how many sick or disabled people say they can't go on. Not dramatically, but matter-of-factly. Time and time again. At least weekly, I've heard from people in despair, unable to go through another assessment or take yet another cut in their already meagre lifestyles.

If people are wanting to debate with this shocking degree of candour, then I think we should all be listening. Few people wish to discuss suicide on a public forum and if they start to do so in significant numbers, I can only believe that alarm bells should be ringing. 

I discovered this week that no-one actually keeps statistics into how much more likely sick or disabled people are to end their own lives. One NHS document reports that it is a "significant risk factor" but the ONS confirmed to me that they had no studies at all on record. With this in mind, if suicide does increase amongst this vulnerable group, no-one will know. 

A full and frank debate needs to base itself on facts. Not hysteria or threats, but information. In searching for that information, some unpalatable subjects might turn up. But dismissing a debate about them is surely not a solution?

If you feel that this subject affects you and you'd like to talk to someone, then please go to or you can call them on 08457 90 90 90

TODAY'S SIMPLE ACTION : This is a sensitive issue. Nonetheless I think it important to try to explain why people might feel so desperate. To understand the support we need, people must understand our lives. 
WILL YOU SEND THIS TO JUST ONE PERSON WHO ISN'T SICK OR DISABLED? Someone you trust to read it and try to understand? Either by email or twitter or facebook or by writing to you MP or local paper? We need to expand the debate and reach those who don't know much about these issues. As ever THANK YOU


  1. The only response I could give to the Guardian article was that I didn't realise my LIFE was merely a "debate". I am not a political dynamo; I get no pleasure of talking about left-right-centre whatever. The only thing I CAN talk about is my life, or lack thereof. I find it rather appalling that this is considered immaterial and unimportant to the "political argument".

    Just...speechless, really.

  2. I have thought a lot about suicide as going from a very independent person working and running a home doing everything for my children and husband to now relying on my husband for everything, (including going to the toilet which is degrading) feeling like no-one believes me and seeing that those who i believed would help me but instead only care about money. I have spent hours on the phone to salvation army because i felt i was a burden to my family and wanted to just end all the pain. I now see a councillor who's helping find ways of changing my thought around when i feel this way, although it toke 5 months to see someone from the initial going to the doctors to ask to see a councillor. This is definitely something we need to debate as its only going to get worse once the cuts and other things the government is implementing, it rings true at how much its going to affect people.
    Great blog post xxx

  3. Thanks, a brave comment. I hope I do good with this and no harm, I'm just shocked by how many people have commented that they feel this way xx

  4. Sue that was an heartbreaking story. For a while now I have been on antidepressants. A4E stepped in and made it a whole lot worse since then my medication has more than double in strength and i still feel suicidal

  5. Sadly, suicide does happen and it happens out of the blue. At a family event last year, somebody made a casual reference to a family member who took her own life over a decade ago, and one of the children present innocently asked, "Who's that?" and I thought that I'm glad I didn't have to answer that.

    In Australia, they have launched an "R U OK?" Day (October 7th) where people are encouraged to check on someone who might be depressed. It should probably be a monthly thing rather than a yearly one, but at least they're doing something.

    The Australian social-network-friend who mentioned it is a big fan of actor Hugh Jackman, but she hadn't actually realised he was one of the celebrities taking part until I googled it.

  6. As i keep saying the devil is in the detail my Conservative mp will learn everything he needs to know about welfare from me and no one else i seam to have impressed him so far but I'm just one person he wont be able to help other's in difficult decisions and i for one believe in fairness all round

    At the end of the day IDS will need to be on top of things so that the atos medicals are fair and he sacks those they don't play fair this will send out a positive note of I'm in charge and if you muck up on a medical and that person end's their life through the struggle then you will go before the courts and that is the right way forward

    To say Someone is fit for work when there not in my mind is a criminal offense and should be treated as such and if i were the prime minster that is the message i would be giving out to reassure the public

  7. In the past 12 months I've been extremely close once, and very close once. The psychiatric hospital was exactly the right place at the time, and the follow on NHS supportwas and still is essential for me.

    Quite where this fits in with returning to work as a senior professional I have absolutely no idea.

    Quite where this fits in with trying to mend a broken relationship and family life I have no idea either.

    Depression is a bastard of an illness which creeps up and before you know it, you're in the blackest pit of despair. Fixing my broken head is a harder, longer slog than I could ever imagine.

    Many wise words from fellow sufferers have said before about sickness and disability: I am not an idiot, I am just ill. and one day I will be better. Just not now. So why DWP wants to humiliate us, prolong our illness, send us towards destitution I will never know. Oh yes, of course - we're political collatoral. Well, no actually we're not!

  8. I know of people with mental health problems who have been told, "You're intelligent, you can sort out your own problems" or words to that effect. Would they say, "You've got a degree, you can work out how to take out your own appendix?" or "What? You're still on insulin? Surely you just need to go on a computer course and then everything will be alright". I'm not saying that mental illness is worse than physical illness, I am sure it varies greatly.

    But it is sad that so many people seem determined to trample all over vulnerable people in the hope that their doing so will affect that nasty feckless chap they saw on "Jeremy Kyle".

  9. I can so relate to these comments. Although I havent felt suicidal,i felt so low and the humiliation of the medical the DWP put U through is unbelievable. I have coeliac disease,arthritis and have recently been told fibromyalgia too,yet shared a waiting room with a teenager swigging red wine from a bottle! I had to go to Tribunal for DLA and it was unanimously found in my favour. But the humiliation of getting there was immense. I have gone from an independant working woman,to a person whose husband has to was her,dress her and even help with toileting issues,yet i still have to keep constantly proving myself to the DWP! Things need to change-the ones who should get a hard time are the. Druggies & alkies who live off the State and choose too. My families lives have been turned upside-down due to my illness and we. have received grief and no help from the DWP!A4e were brilliant and helped immensly-we were so struggling financially as hubby stopped work to look after me....they helped win the Tribunal. I just hope something changes and the govt start to help those who genuinely deserve it

  10. We should; and we must, we must, we must...

  11. As I stated on one previous response to the Guardian piece, many mental health claimants struggle with severe suicidality anyway, and that was wholly ignored in the article. Losing benefits is likely to be the straw to break in such circumstances. It's not a threat; just a sad, harsh reality.

    Of course as you state the danger of suicide is wider than simply amongst those with mental illnesses. I can absolutely understand how "sane" people with different disabilities would rather pass away peacefully than face impoverishment, homelessness and even greater illness.

    So, from whatever angle one is coming from, discussing the potential for suicide in this arena is not just fair and relevant, but imperative.

  12. (When I say 'the article' in my first paragraph, I meant the Guardian one, of course, not this post! Reading it back I felt it sounded a little ambiguous and I just wanted to clarify :) Sorry).

  13. I can relate to so much in this piece - and it deserves a wider audience, I feel. Just one question - who are A4E? I'll go and google them, but just in case! :)


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