By Ciaran Mulholland
Our health care system is in crisis. This is most clearly illustrated by the many hundreds waiting on trolleys in Accident and Emergency Departments every weekend, and by the long waiting lists for planned surgery. Another aspect of the crisis is the poor service received by those with mental health conditions such as depression.
Lacks of services and stigma
Not only have the cutbacks damaged the services available to the mentally ill, but the recession and austerity have produced an increase in the numbers with mental health problems. The suicide rate is a stark measure of the scale of the problem, and the problems with services. Another problem associated with mental health is the enormous stigma that is attached with it and the lack of mental health services has certainly not been assisted by the dominance of the Catholic Church over our health service given their backward attitudes towards this issue.
There were officially around 500 deaths by suicide in each of the last several years. The true figure may be closer to 600 as many “undetermined” deaths are actually suicide. 83% of those who died were men and Ireland has the fourth highest rate in Europe for suicides in young men aged 15 to 24.
This does not mean that the problem of suicides only affects young men. The level of attempted suicide is higher amongst young women but given they are more likely to use methods such as drug overdoses means they are more likely to be saved.
Capitalist crisis and mental health
The National Suicide Research Foundation has carried out a detailed analysis of the impact of the economic recession and austerity on suicide and self-harm. Their analysis found there was a decreasing trend from 2001 to 2007 but since then self-harm rates and suicide rates had increased significantly. The foundation projected what might have happened had the rate of suicide continued to decrease beyond 2007.
It found that the rate of male suicide by the end of 2012 was 57% higher than it might have been had the economic recession not happened. In absolute numbers, the analysis found that there were an additional 476 additional male suicides on top of what “would have been expected” as a result of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger.
In Greece, the hardest hit country in Europe, the link between suicide and recession appears to be direct. Official statistics shows a 35% jump in the suicide rate during the first two years of austerity, with researchers linking every percentage point in additional unemployment to an increase in the suicide rate among working-age men. The lessons from Ireland, Greece and elsewhere are that the system itself is dangerous to health. The boom and bust cycle of capitalism is a cause of mental distress and suicide.
Discrimination and oppression
It is not just economic factors that contribute to the development of problems with health problems, the rate of self-harm and suicides are alarmingly high amongst oppressed groups such as the LGBTQ and Travelling community because of the discrimination and prejudices they face. One of the figures in a report issued by GLEN entitled “Supporting LGBT Lives” found that 27% of LGBT people had self-harmed and 85% had done so more than once.
A tragedy that needs addressing
Most people who end their lives by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness. Improved services would prevent many possible suicides in the future and a massive investment in mental health services is urgently required.
It is clear however, that suicide prevention is much less about what mental health staff can achieve and much more about how society is run. The same applies to conditions such as depression and anxiety. Much ill health is related to poverty and unemployment. So-called “way of life” factors, such as smoking and excessive use of alcohol, are often directly linked to the stress of living. A new health service is necessary, but will not remove poverty and unemployment. We need fundamental system change to achieve this.