There are some things we know for sure about the Tory austerity measures, like how they have disproportionately targeted society's most vulnerable and that they simply don't work when it comes to accelerating our economic growth. But one thing we know slightly less about is what effect the sustained sting of crippling cuts across all major public services can have on our health.
One study, published in medical journal BMJ Open last year, concluded that there were around 120,000 more deaths than expected in the first four years of Tory-led austerity measures (2010-14). In the case of social care, the researchers noted, the annual budget increase collapsed – from 2.20 percent annually to 1.57 percent – coinciding with death rates, which had decreased by around 0.77 percent in the year leading up to 2010, then increased to 0.87 percent a year once the Tory cuts hit. This, the researchers argued, could have accounted for around 45,000 extra deaths alone.
Another study, published in the European Journal of Public Health last year, noted that 500,000 public sector jobs were lost between 2010 and 2012 – 35 percent of which were in the north of England. They found that the regional trend of job losses correlated with changes in suicide rates: a 20 percent rise was observed in those regions (the North-East, North-West and Yorkshire and the Humber) most affected by austerity. But interestingly there was a decline in London, where unemployment actually fell.
Is it true that the Tory-led austerity measures could have driven up suicide rates, alongside their timely butchering of funding for mental health services?
Aaron Reeves, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at Oxford University, was part of the research team that conducted the study which linked public sector job losses and suicide. I asked him how austerity measures have impacted people's psychological wellbeing. "I think that there's been a couple of ways,: he said. "It partly depends on what we describe as austerity, but the most obvious way is about various cuts to public provision of different kinds. If we think about the reductions in the generosity of social security, for example, I think there is good evidence that this has had a negative effect on people's mental health."
"We can document that for those people who were affected by reductions to housing benefit in the UK," he continued, "we see a very clear rise in the number of people reporting mental ill-health – anxiety, depression and things relating to that – following that reform, that period of change."
Reeves also believes other factors could be playing a part too. "It's also changes in the way in which social security is administered," he explained. "We've seen changes to the conditions and requirements in place for people who need to receive social security of various forms – Job Seekers Allowance or disability benefits. Those forms of conditionality have increased financial precariousness and uncertainty; those things have been associated with more anti-depressant prescriptions, more reporting of mental ill-health, but also rises in suicide. There's pretty good evidence that this has negatively affected mental health in the UK."
I asked Reeves if the government takes this type of research into account when they're forming policy. "We've seen the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) committee respond directly to much of the research that we've done," Reeves said. "But some people seem to dismiss it as being not able to prove causality." Does that go for all the politicians? "At the moment that seems to cut across party lines; people that aren't in power are more sympathetic to the findings, but people who are in government tend to dismiss it. Not entirely – I think it would be wrong to say everyone – but that's the general response that we've had."
Is the fact that the Tories callously choose to target already vulnerable societal subsections (like people suffering from social deprivation) rather than, say, increasing taxes, compounding this apparent link between austerity and suicide? "It's almost certainly true that austerity is going to be harming those who are already economically or socially excluded," Reeves reckons. "The cuts have fallen on those who are already socially and economically excluded, and are already more likely to be experiencing poor mental health."
"There's no doubt that choices have been made which have exasperated an already bad situation for those who are amongst the poorest in our society," he said. "I think that a change in policy could protect mental health and possibly reduce suicides that are associated with mental ill-health."
One interpretation of this situation paints a picture that looks a bit like this: The cuts have definitely resulted in higher levels of mental health breakdowns, which has – I'm sorry, DWP – resulted in an increase in the suicide rate in the UK. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the blindingly obvious. With suicide still ranked the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35 in our country, we must work harder to tackle the causes we can have any kind of hand in. Therefore, any politician who continues to target the poor, fully aware of the implications, must be judged accordingly.