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Last year, on the 23rd of June, Malcolm Burge set off from his home in London to travel to a funeral in the West Country. Four days later, he killed himself inside his car.
Burge’s cries for help came in the form of letters to his local council. “I’m now more stressed, depressed and suicidal than any of my previous letters,” he wrote. “I have no savings or assets. I’m not trying to live. I’m trying to survive.”
These letters were ignored by Newham council, who later admitted to sending letters in an “inappropriate tone” to Burge. Having spent his life as a gardener at City of London Cemetery and Crematorium, Burge started claiming benefits when he became a carer for his father later in life.
In January of 2013, his housing benefit was halved from £90 to £45. Newham council failed to inform him of the change and continued to pay him the full amount due to a backlog. In the end, the council issued a demand for their overpayment of £800.
Burge was unable to afford this on his basic subsistence income; in one letter to the council he wrote, “I can’t remember the last time I had £800 in my possession.” Regardless, he was sent ten letters demanding repayment, and money was deducted from his weekly benefits without permission. In turn, Burge became increasingly distressed, to the point where he felt he couldn’t cope any more.
The coroner, Michael Rose, was insistent that Burge had not attempted to avoid the debt. Instead, he said, “This is a tragic case. Mr Burge had obviously been caught up in the change of the government benefits system. He is a man who clearly needed help, but unfortunately Newham borough council were unable to give it to him.”
Burge is not the first person to take his own life after losing his benefits, and he’s unlikely to be the last. Last month the government’s Work and Pensions Select Committee announced that 40 people had committed suicide because of problems with welfare payments since 2012. Following the announcement, MPs called for an independent review into the deaths that surround benefit sanctions.
Most of these deaths pass us by, because individuals who’ve never made it to the media in life rarely do in death. As a result, the Burges of the world die alone, faceless and voiceless. It’s never possible to truly know why someone chose to take their life, but you can’t help but wonder whether Burge would have ended his had he not been pushed into a financial – and, subsequently, psychological – crisis.
Suicide remains taboo in public discourse. While we might speak more openly about our mental health than ever before, the “S” word continues to linger in the shadows. According to the Samaritans, “The majority of people who feel suicidal do not actually want to die; they do not want to live the life they have.”
Research has increasingly highlighted the link between poverty and suicide – people in a dire financial situation not wanting to live the life they have. A report by Samaritans, for instance, has shown that those in the poorest communities are ten times more likely to commit suicide than the affluent. What’s more, the Office for National Statisticsclaims that the recent recession has driven male suicide rates to their highest level since 2001.
Like Burge, Sam Clement (imajsaclaimant) also reached the point of wanting to take his own life after his benefits were cut. Fortunately, he survived. “It might make no sense to you, but I was sanctioned for attending a self-employment training course with my housing association,” he explains. “Although one advisor told me this was fine, when I got back another advisor said it was not a DWP approved training course so she sanctioned me, and that was that. My money stopped coming through.”
Clement went into the Job Centre every day to find out what was going on. It took a month for them to tell him he would be sanctioned for a month in December of 2013, meaning all money was cut off. “The situation rapidly deteriorated. I only had five pounds, so I very quickly ran out of food,” he recalls. “And after few days of not eating I got diarrhoea, but by that time I’d run out of toilet roll. I was too stressed and hungry to sleep, and if I did sleep I made a mess.”
Unable to afford electricity or heating, Clement’s Christmas was cold and dark. “I remember sitting in the living room on Christmas day, watching families walking around happily out the window, while I sat hoping for darkness to come so I could go to bed,” he says.
Like most of us, Clement didn’t know what a benefit sanction actually was until he was on the receiving end of one. “I had no idea they could just take your money away like that,” he says. “It shocked me how quickly I fell to pieces. The whole thing destroyed my mental health.”
When his sanction period finally came to an end, Clement returned to the Job Centre. “When I arrived back, my advisor told me I needed to learn a ‘work ethic’ (clearly, working for 20 years before unemployment did not show that), and that if I didn’t attend an unpaid mandatory work activity (workfare) I would be sanctioned again. Obviously I became extremely anxious.” He pauses as his voice catches in his throat. “As soon as I got home I swallowed every pill I had in the house and tried to overdose. I wasn’t in a good place. I ended up in A&E having my stomach pumped. It was the worst day I’ve ever had.”
After a turbulent seven months of waiting, the doctor finally put Clement in touch with a therapist. Since then he has undergone individual and group therapy, as well as CBT. Nevertheless, the repercussions of his sanction continue to haunt him.
“Before the sanction, my mental health was fine. I certainly wouldn’t have called myself anxious,” he says. “But I am now. I haven’t wanted to leave my flat in 15 months. Home is my safety blanket. I can be perfectly OK inside, but if I walk to the Job Centre my hands start shaking. In the back of my head, my mind is screaming at me to go home.”
Since his sanction, Clement has developed insomnia, as well as a whole raft of stress-induced health problems. “My legs have swollen due to psoriasis and I’ve put on three stone. It’s all down to the anxiety. You can’t plan for a sanction, and it’s always at the back of my mind,” he says.
The word “sanction” may have once been one we reserved for the West’s scolding of Russia, but it now holds resonance far closer to home. Since the coalition introduced a tighter policy on sanctions in October of 2012, increasing the maximum time you could lose your benefits to three years, the number of sanctions has skyrocketed. According to Unite, 2 million people have had their benefits stopped in the last two years. Moreover, 2014 saw the largest number of sanctions in history.
Like Clement, people often lose their benefits for the most arbitrary of reasons. Examples range from selling Remembrance Day poppies to not searching for jobs on Christmas Day, or being two minutes late for signing on. Even having a heart attack. (There’s a Tumblr page dedicated to highlighting absurd sanctioning reasons in case you want to continue revelling in the absurdity of it all.) The causes may differ, but all of these sanctions are removing a basic subsistence income from people who have no other way to survive.
It’s also worth noting that people with mental health problems are far more likely to have their benefits sanctioned. According to research from the mental health charity Mind, six out of ten disabled people who are sanctioned have a mental health condition or learning difficulty. In 2009, claimants with mental health problems only constituted 35 percent of those sanctioned. In 2013, that number grew to a staggering 58 percent.
Tom Pollard, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Mind, says: “We’re very concerned about the impact changes to benefits are having on people with mental health problems, including the number of people having their benefits stopped.” Sanctions cause not just financial problems but “added emotional distress”, he says. Mind has been getting an increasing number of calls from people experiencing suicidal thoughts, and while the causes of suicide are myriad and complex, we know that the reforms being made to benefits are a contributory factor for many people.”
In April of 2014, Mind received 169 phone calls from people who were experiencing suicidal thoughts. By December, this number had increased to 246 calls.
“Stopping benefits does not help people with mental health problems back into work,” stresses Pollard. “In fact, it often results in people becoming more anxious and unwell, and this makes a return to work less likely. Sanctions are based on a false assumption that individuals lack motivation and willingness to work, but it’s the impact of their illness and the environment [in which] they are expected to work which actually present the toughest challenges.”
In spite of this, blanket sanctions are applied regardless of an individual’s state of mind. In turn, benefit sanctions are tipping deeply vulnerable individuals – in need of support, not punishment – over the edge.
While it may be a given that economic hardship impacts one’s mental health, the isolation, shame, insecurity and powerlessness that have long been endemic to poverty have been further exacerbated by the coalition’s brutal sanctions regime. The ever-looming threat of having the rug pulled from beneath your feet leads to a perpetual cycle of fear and uncertainty – you’re only ever one envelope away from destitution.
Depression is multi-causal. It transcends and eclipses affluence, class, occupation and talent. But it’s imperative that we, as a nation, recognise the very clear link between austerity and poor mental health. It goes the other way, too – those with mental health problems are at a greater risk of economic hardship, and figures show that people with mental health problems are more likely to be unemployed, be in low-income jobs, in debt or rent arrears and retire early.
Just like sanctions, the government’s controversial Work Capability Assessments are also pushing claimants into crisis mode. In early 2011, the Coalition reassessed 2.5 million people with physical and mental illnesses for their incapacity benefits. In turn,hundreds of thousands of highly vulnerable, mentally unwell claimants were judged fit for work and no longer entitled to government support. In four out of ten cases, the original decision was overturned, proving that they had been mistakenly judged fit for work in the first place.
Work Capability Assessments are run via a rigid, computer-based points system and semi-structured interviews. Both have been widely criticised for their faceless, one-size-fits-all approach. In May of 2013, a landmark court decision ruled that Work Capability Assessments were not fit for purpose and significantly disadvantaged those with mental health conditions. The scheme, however, has carried on regardless.
Together, Work Capability Assessments and benefit sanctions are pushing the most vulnerable and helpless into psychological turmoil. In an open letter to The Guardian, 442 psychotherapists, counsellors and academics condemned austerity’s impact on the nation’s mental health. In the letter, they argued that the “intimidatory disciplinary regime” facing benefit claimants would be further exacerbated by the Conservative’s latest budget plans.
After all, the Conservative Manifesto clearly states that people “who might benefit from treatment should get the medical help they need so they can return to work. If they refuse a recommended treatment, we will review whether their benefits should be reduced.” In other words, people with mental health problems will face sanctions, hardship and misery if they turn down treatment they are not ready for.
The Conservatives are proposing on-screen, electronic cognitive behaviour therapy treatment for 40,000 claimants. The problem here is that mechanical, automated treatments are likely to overlook an individual’s highly subjective and private psychological needs. It begs the question: can therapy be defined as such when it doesn’t require consent and is enforced via the ever-present threat of sanctions? Hundreds of psychologists have argued no, labelling this so-called “therapy” as “damaging” and “professionally unethical” in their open letter.
Maybe we’re coming to the end of all this. Maybe next week will mark the end of a period of some of the greatest cuts to the vulnerable this country has seen in a very long time. But real lives have been lost because people could not see a future beyond the mess of their welfare payments. We must grieve for those lives, because while such fatalities are the starkest example of the psychological fall-out of austerity, so many more are suffering day-in, day-out.
If you are concerned about the mental health of you or someone you know, talk to Mind on 0300 123 3393 or at their website, here.
This piece originally appeared in Vice on April 27, 2015.
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