Although not often considered in this way, suicide is an issue of inequality. The latest figures from National Records of Scotland show that the rate of suicide is almost three times higher in Scotland’s least affluent communities compared to our most affluent. Whilst the causes of suicide are complex, and individual deaths can rarely be attributed to one particular factor, we do know that the economic circumstances of individuals, communities and wider society is a major influencing factor in the overall rate of suicide.
In order to better understand why this link exists, Samaritans and eight leading academics have been gathering and analysing evidence over the past two years. Our report, Dying from Inequality, sets out for the first time what exactly contributes to suicide risk in disadvantaged people and communities – and what more can be done to save lives.
We have made significant progress in Scotland in terms of reducing suicide. In the ten years from 2002, when the first Choose Life Suicide Prevention Strategy was published, there was an 18% fall in the suicide rate. Yet despite real progress, a significant difference in rates between the most and least deprived people in Scotland persists. In this way, suicide is an unjust and avoidable difference in length of life that results from being disadvantaged.
Increasing numbers of people have no long-term security and the opportunities of obtaining a secure place to live or work can seem too limited for many. That feeling of insecurity can be all pervasive. Increases in the number of agency workers, people in self-employment and those in short-term/zero hour contracts reflect the flexibility demanded by many parts of today’s labour market and may indeed suit some people. But that sort of flexibility does not help with the household bills and day-to-day costs of living that people face and the lack of a reliable, regular wage can be a constant worry for some.
Changes to tax credits and other benefits can add to this worry and, for those outside the labour market altogether, re-assessments of benefit entitlements can be a cause of anxiety, particularly when they are someone’s only source of income. Only recently we’ve seen key members of Scotland’s third sector call for a halt to the roll out of Universal Credit. Two of the main concerns expressed being that the new system includes a six-week waiting period and that it is an entirely online.
Unfortunately, it would seem that there is likely to be little improvement in the near future. The Resolution Foundation recently predicted the biggest rise in inequality since the 1980s over the next four years with the ‘after housing costs’ incomes of people in the bottom half of the income scale set to fall significantly while those in the top half can expect their incomes to grow.
That’s a frightening prospect when we know that the risk of a person taking their own life is substantially increased according to how disadvantaged they may be. Crucially, in setting out what needs to change, our report provides the important opportunity to galvanise other agencies and decision makers into action. We are already talking to those who can influence change in housing, stigma, lifestyle behaviours and many of the other factors highlighted in the report.
We’ll be talking about Scottish solutions, in a Scottish policy and political context, with key agencies that can help us affect change. And following the recent publication of the new Programme for Government, we’ll be seeking to influence thinking right across the poverty and inequality agendas too. Work is currently underway on the Scottish Government’s forthcoming suicide prevention action plan and those areas of work need to take account of each other. Both the poverty and suicide prevention agendas should be considering welfare, education, housing and employment policies.
This is, of course, not an issue that can be tackled solely at a national level. We do also need to target local suicide prevention work to areas of deprivation within individual local authorities. Socioeconomic disadvantage is complex and it can fluctuate. We therefore need those with local knowledge of local issues to be driving this.
Increasingly, Samaritans is seeking to work with others to be there for those on the margins of society. We are providing our services in foodbanks, in homeless drop-in centres and other locations where contact with people in crisis can play a role in helping to manage the situation they find themselves in. We have also made our phone number free to call for everyone, so that the cost of contacting us is never a barrier. But we all need to do more to address this.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 and young people aged 20-34 in the UK. And none of us should ignore that the lower your social class, the more likely you are to be affected by suicide in Scotland. We need individuals to care more – and for organisations that can make a difference on this issue to step up and to do so.
James Jopling is the Executive Director for Samaritans in Scotland.