During my time as Executive Director for Samaritans Wales, I have seen so much evidence of the devastating link between poverty and suicide. The reality behind the statistics is experienced daily by the volunteers who provide our service. From calling on schools to make mental health lessons mandatory, to offering emotional support in custody suites, we work hard to support individuals and communities at both ends of the spectrum. We work to prevent emotional distress and we strive to be there for those who are experiencing or nearing crisis point. However, whoever we support in our work, it is important to emphasise the affect poverty can have on emotional wellbeing.
Poverty means facing constant insecurity and uncertainty. Its features include inadequate housing, poor mental health, low educational attainment, unemployment, loneliness and low social mobility. Knowing that these are also risk factors for suicide should add urgency and energy to efforts to tackle both poverty and its impact on individuals and communities.
During our last event, which we held on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, we invited guests to join us to discuss the overwhelming evidence of the relationship between poverty and suicidal behaviour in Wales. The conversations that followed were revealing, troubling and inspiring. We heard from a wide range of participants, many of them frontline staff, from the police service to third sector organisations to job centres. All recognised the reality of the link between poverty, distress and suicide and the urgency of doing all we can to tackle it.
In the United Kingdom and Ireland, more than 6000 people take their own lives each year and in Wales, between 300 and 350 people die by suicide each year. This is about three times the number killed in road accidents. In both England and Wales, suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 and the leading cause of death of people under 35.
Alongside this, 14 million people live in poverty in the UK – over one in five of the population. In Wales, almost a quarter of the population (23%) live in poverty. It costs Wales £3.6bn a year; a fifth of the Welsh Government budget.
In 2016, Samaritans commissioned eight leading social scientists to review and extend the existing body of knowledge on the connection between socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour. The report, titled ‘Dying from Inequality’ was launched in March 2017 and included key findings on the link between suicide and deprivation and recommendations for addressing this connection.
Amongst other key findings, the research found that there is a strong association between area-level deprivation and suicidal behaviour: as area-level deprivation increases, so does suicidal behaviour. It found that admissions to hospital following self-harm are two times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent. It also found that suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve.
Our new report, ‘Socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – Finding a way forward for Wales’, sets out 10 recommendations we believe need to be adopted in order to tackle the relationship between suicide and poverty in Wales. Amongst our recommendations, we believe that a Wales Poverty Strategy would be a positive step forward. The Welsh Government does not currently have an over-arching, broad poverty strategy or action plan to address poverty in Wales, but we believe a specific and targeted approach to tackle it is crucial. Among our other recommendations, we are also calling for better public information to support financial literacy and help to reduce unmanageable debt and better support for those bereaved by suicide.
One of the comments that stuck with me from our seminar was “Everyone wants to be a competent member of society, one who feels a sense of belonging and meaning”. This emphasis on connection between people is close to our own values as an organisation. Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group and is crucial for mental health. Those experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage are more likely to feel a lack of belongingness, which can increase suicidal behaviour. Everyone should be able to feel that they belong to something, whether it’s a family, a group or a community. It’s for this reason that we strongly push for the development of community groups and outreach; these networks must be recognised for their vital health benefits in deprived communities.
Most importantly, while reading this report, we must remember that behind the figures there are individuals who have left behind a family and community devastated by their loss. We also need to realise, as a society, that deprivation is closer to us than we think; we must stop seeing these communities as separate to us.
By taking action together, we can reduce suicide. Suicide is not inevitable, it is preventable.
To read or download ‘Socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – Finding a way forward for Wales’ please visit our website.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com