Suicide in Recession, March 2009

Speech by Dan Neville TD on Private Members’ Motion on Public Finances. – Dail Eireann – Wednesday 4th March 2009

Deputy Dan Neville

Research into suicide since the 1890s shows there is an increase in suicide rates and mental illness during times of economic recession. I call on the Minister for Health and Children and the Health Service Executive to respond to the challenges that arise in this regard in the current economic crisis. There should be an immediate allocation of an additional €10 million to the National Suicide Prevention Office to allow it to respond to the suicide prevention challenges of society’s changed circumstances.

There is a precedent for this. In November 2008, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs allocated almost €11 million in additional funding to provide for a range of marriage, child and bereavement counselling services and supports to help families to cope through the difficult times they face as a result of the recession. The Minister for Health and Children must now respond in a similar fashion to the challenges arising for mental health and suicide prevention services.

Economic strain and personal financial crises have been well documented as precipitating events in individual deaths by suicide. Stressful life events, financial and otherwise, have a significant impact on those vulnerable to suicide where typical coping mechanisms are compromised by the effects of mental disorder, substance use, acute psychiatric symptoms and the other risk factors associated with suicide. We have already seen several suicides that can be attributed to the difficulties and pressures arising from economic changes.

Increasing unemployment leads to an increase in the suicide rate. Unemployment has a profound effect on a person, especially the young and on those in middle age. Irish society awards status and prestige according to a person’s position and contribution to work. Correspondingly, unemployment is associated with loss of face and of prestige. The unemployed are six times more likely to suffer from a psychiatric disorder than those in employment. Studies show that those who die of suicide are significantly more likely to have experienced unemployment, job instability or occupational problems. The Kelleher-Daly study conducted in Cork during the economic recession of the 1980s showed that of the male deaths by suicide analysed, two thirds involved men who were out of work at the time of their deaths.

The high rate and threat of home foreclosures is of particular concern. For most Irish people, our homes are our primary investment and the locus of our identities and social support systems. When combined with loss of employment, home loss or the threat of home loss has been found to be one of the most common economic strains associated with suicides. The Minister for Health and Children must immediately respond to the psychological, emotional and psychiatric difficulties affecting people as a result of the changed economic times. In doing so, she must recognise the need to enable the National Suicide Prevention Office to respond adequately to the inevitably growing demand for its services.

Dr. John Connolly, secretary of the Irish Association of Suicidology, stated recently in a newspaper interview that despite the shrinking public finances, it is vital that the Government invests more in suicide prevention and mental health services in order to reduce the number of deaths. He stated:

We must be aware of the fact that research reaching back to that of Emile Durkheim in the 1890s shows that in times of recession, suicide rates inevitably increase.

As Dr. Connolly told a meeting of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee on the High Level of Suicide in Ireland:

Unfortunately, this will happen in Ireland in the coming months and years unless we ensure that funding for the implementation of the national suicide prevention strategy and other services is guaranteed.

I ask the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to examine what her counterpart in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, has done in response to the changed economic circumstances. The Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children must respond in a like fashion. We are not asking for the €25 million per annum that has been recommended for mental illness treatment services. Rather, we call for a specific allocation of €10 million to the National Suicide Prevention Office in order to support groups working throughout the State to help those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. The Government must ensure that people in crisis are encouraged to seek help and are pointed towards the appropriate help.