Thursday 17 February 2011

Suicide is part of the disability debate, because suicide is part of some disabled people's lives

This is a guest post from Zellieh, who can be found on twitter, and blogging here.

I'm writing this post because I'm so angry with this Guardian article, Suicide threats don't help disability debate, by Sharon Brennan:
I fear that the rhetoric used to draw attention to our community will close off the ears of the public. Threatening suicide is not just extreme, it sounds overtly engineered to make any discussion of disability benefit reform sound callous. Talking of increased pain, social isolation, inability to maintain a dignified life have a worthy place in the debate, but is it ethical to phrase the fight for benefits in the context of life or death?

Suicide isn't a political tactic for me, and you're lucky, dear readers and Guardian article authors, if you can look at the real risk of suicide among mentally ill disability benefits recipients and think of it as a tactical thing that other people do.

I don't know how much you know about claiming disability benefits on mental health grounds, but let me assure you that you don't get Disability Living Allowance, Incapacity Benefit or Employment Support Allowance for Mental Health issues because you're 'having a bit of a bad day' -- you need evidence, from a GP, a Psychiatrist, and a Community Psychiatric Nurse or Occupational Therapist, of serious long-lasting problems -- which often includes self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and/or actual suicide attempts.

The Department for Work and Pensions don't just hand over disability benefits because you ask nicely. The DWP & ATOS' medical assessments for benefits are designed for physical health problems, with mental health problems tacked on as a bit of an afterthought, so for someone who is mentally ill, they are the equivalent, in terms of stress, of passing a job interview or being made redundant, plus being threatened with moving house and/or having your house repossessed, since benefits link to Housing Benefit, so if you lose your disability benefits you can lose some or all of your Housing Benefit.

In your article, Ms. Brennan, you talk about
the talk of "potential" suicide
Thank you for using those patronisingly skeptical quotemarks around the issue of "potential" suicide. Or as I like to call it in my reality, suicide.

Suicide is not a tactic for me; it's a real risk: TWO of my four suicide attempts were triggered by the stress of medical assessments; one suicide attempt each for Disability Living Allowance and Incapacity Benefit.

I am genuinely happy for you, Ms. Brennan, if you manage to be both physically disabled and mentally well -- and I mean that sincerely; the world needs more happy, kick-ass people with disabilities leading full and varied lives, because disability ISN'T all about suffering and pain -- but I find your ignorance about people with mental health issues insulting.

Referring to a recent survey by Disability Alliance (which found that 9% of people who answered were considering suicide), you say,
I don't doubt that those who responded to the survey are genuinely in fear of losing the very support that makes their life bearable, but should they have been asked about suicide in the first place?
Well, considering that a third of people claim disability benefits due to mental health problems, and that many people with physical health problems are also often suffering form various mental illnesses or depressed due to the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with living with disability, yes that is a valid question.

You go on to say,
Life is too precious to be used as an instrument to fight against government cuts and I can only hope that the very posing of the question hasn't led someone, already living in a climate of fear, to start down a very dark path of desperation.

Well, don't worry your passive-aggressive little head about that -- I was brought to suicide by the process of claiming disability benefits long before this survey came out, and in fact, I haven't even read it yet. Although, the current climate of fear has led me to think suicidal thoughts far more often; turning on the TV has become akin to playing Russian Roulette: will today's speech by [insert politician's name here] be the one that finally tips me over the edge?

Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of depression and also many of the anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and diseases such as dementia. Depression and anxiety often accompany physical health problems, for both disabled people and their carers (who are often invisible victims) due to stress and pain and grief and the severe limitations illness brings to peoples' lives.

Suicide is not a rhetorical device for me - it is a symptom of my illness. It is a symptom -- and a real risk -- of many peoples' illness. When you ask,
is it ethical to phrase the fight for benefits in the context of life or death?
I ask you -- is it ethical of you to ask me to lie about my life, my illness, my experience, because talk of my suicidal thoughts upsets you?


  1. Well said. In the Guardian piece I see a lot of the common false assumptions that exist about suicide - that those who talk about it won't do it, that it's a cynical attention-seeking ploy, etc...

    I understand that there is a thread in disability debate that says we have to challenge negative perceptions by showing that disabled lives are just as much worth living as able-bodied ones, but in the present situation we are fighting to stay out of poverty and it is not remotely unreasonable to highlight the fact that for some people, the reforms and associated hate propaganda on the Government's part ARE making them feel that life is not worth living.

  2. Some people have already committed suicide after losing their benefits. Paul Reekie and Christelle Pardo are the 2 examples I know of.

  3. what di they EXPECT us to do? Live on the streets with nothing and starve to death as we cannot live without it? Do they not understand that suicide is the only way out they are leaving for us to do. It is the only thing we will have control over left as they have taken everything else away from us.

    If they dont want me to think of suicide then they need to stop threatening me with no help at all. threatening me with ESA and being thrown on to JSA and then i wont be able to work so i am on ZERO benefits and yet even then i am supposed to not try to find a way out? Suicide is the ONLY way out they have left some of us

  4. Although I haven't read the Guardian article and perhaps shouldn't comment, I would like to chip in my belief that welfare has a primary function of keeping people alive. Therefore, welfare actually is a matter of life and death.

    It seems that some politicians want to push the line that welfare ought to be a hand-up not a hand-out, as if keeping a person alive is a hand-out.
    Helping some on in life or helping someone back to work is a laudable secondary aim, but is only possible and relevant if the state has kept the person alive during their worst period.

  5. Good, good article, demolishing the false assumptions of the Guardian piece (and the Guardian is normally one of the few papers that gets it). If Brennan had a point we wouldn't be seeing these posts about suicide in blog replies here and elsewhere in the community, where's the gain in 'emotionally blackmailing' the people who agree with you?

  6. In my experience those of my friends and family who have committed suicide talked about it before carrying out the act. Unfortunately nobody took them seriously enough or really believed they would do it.

    I constantly have suicidal thoughts myself and I know it will just take the right set of circumstances and despair to make me carry them out.

  7. Thank you for this. As a mental health claimant with chronic and daily suicidal ideation, the underhand anti-mental illness tone of the article really angered me. How dare she accuse suicidal people of political motivation?! It's impossible to be so calculated when you are seriously mentally ill.

    Like yourself, I have found assessments to trigger my suicidality even further than normal. To actually lose our only viable sources of income would be devastating beyond description, and in the world of many mentalists, suicide is, regrettably, a 'natural' response. I don't encourage or endorse it, but it is a sad reality for many, not some sort of manipulative threat.

    Thanks again.

  8. It is a matter or life and death and the truth must be known.

    I am not having some Chattering Classes dinner party conversation when I tell my GP I'll kill myself rather than end up penniless and homeless again.

    Of course it will be our 'mental health' issues (real or imagined) that will kill us and not the loss of benefits.

  9. Well said. I love the way the author keeps subtly implying that suicide threats are just attention-seeking. What are people *supposed* to do if they lose their benefits and can't work? Does she seriously think that loads of people disabled by MH issues will magically 'pull themselves together' and go Oooh, better work after all then? God most people are twats.

  10. I don't have any overt mental health issues fortunately, just crappy cognitive issues to go with my physical ones. But I found the Guardian article to be an utterly condescending piece of tripe. The author clearly has no concept of mental health problems and has not tried to find out. She has also misunderstood what the Disability Alliance asked in their survey. They did not ask about suicide, they asked a very open question about how claimants would feel if they lost their DLA allowance. She clearly couldn't even be bothered to research for her own article.

  11. Thank you for this. It's also irritating that she says how precious life is. Life doesn't feel precious when, along with your own problems, you feel like your own government wants you to disappear and you haven't got enough money to eat.

  12. Thank you. Utterly disgusting article. Has this idiot any idea how long it can take for someone to confess that they have considered suicide? The "attention-seeking" line is one of the reasons.


    "I ask you -- is it ethical of you to ask me to lie about my life, my illness, my experience, because talk of my suicidal thoughts upsets you?"

    hits the nail on the head. How dare, how DARE someone put their own comfort ahead of someone else's entire existence in this way?

  13. Ho hum. I do wonder sometimes about the wisdom of letting people comment on issues they know very little about. It's all very well to mouth off in an ill-informed way in the privacy of one's on home but allowing someone the opportunity to do so in a national newspaper is slightly different. The Black Triangle Campaign was established in direct response to the suicide of Paul Reekie last spring. Paul had mental health problems and killed himself when his housing benefit was stopped and he was unable to pay household bills. A student, taught by one of my friends, recently killed herself and her little baby when her housing benefit was stopped.How very selfish of these people to upset Ms Brennan's delicate sensitivities.

  14. I post as BettysBlues in comment on Guardian articles. I did indeed challenge the article writer's assumptions and pointed out that suicide goes with the territory of mental illness, just as heart attack comes with the territory of angina.

  15. I suffer from depression, anxiety and phobia problems, including varying levels of agoraphobia. I'm a graduate and there are, theoretically, many things I'd love to do, whether it be paid work, community volunteering or otherwise. However, to be honest right now it'd be nice just to be able to do my own food shopping like a 'normal' person, or my washing up.

    I had my ATOS medical for ESA last week. Every day I wake up feeling sick worrying that the will be a letter for me. If I don't get it then I will have to go on JSA and get to the job centre, which is a bit away. I can sometime hardly get to the corner shop.

    I already feel invalidated, will low self-esteem and some suicidal ideation. The benefits system makes me feel like I am just a burden on society and they'd rather I wasn't here. Sometimes I just feel like giving up.

  16. Only thing I can recommend if you get declared fit for work is appeal, which is what I am doing, it has been a difficult time and yes I planned to use a bunch of nebuliser tubes up the exhaust of my car. I did plan this when I realised I wasn't even well enough to attend college one day a week end of 2009, didn't have the pipe and hadn't thought of using tubes at that point, the next time I went out in my car the exhaust fell off as I parked. I was shopping and had got through that very dark night where I was too exhausted to go and get a hosepipe from anywhere, make a cup of tea or eat.

    So when I was declared fit for work when if I was I would be fit to self care and already working it did nearly break me again. I likened it to the trauma after rape. It is abuse, especially when false information is used on reports. I was trying to rebuild my strength after never being given the help and support to recover properly from illness that led to medication that destroyed my immune system and gave me horrendous acne, which for a good while deformed my face and left me with very bad skin, not as important as the health issues I deal with but something I had to deal to deal with.

    The feelings of disempowerment that debilitating health conditions have on us is enough to push us over the edge, without having to fight every step of the way to get any amount of help that is given grudgingly if at all and as if we are beggars who can't be bothered to help ourselves. It is no wonder so many do feel tempted by the release of no longer having to struggle.

    I've got here through rape, lots of unrequited love, rejection, family breakdown, loss of support systems, lots of nearly dying through health conditions and when all seems bleak suicidal fantasy. I have also had the wonder of being a mother, getting my art degree, travelling, laughing and loving. Yes life is precious, I would help almost anyone I could (without ignoring my own needs as well) to find ways to deal with their life and find laughter and love in their heart, almost any way I can. I'd break people's hearts who walked away from me as well as those who stuck with me if I ever took my own life but I could die anyway. I will one day, I'd like to think I could regain a little dignity and life before then. With appropriate help and support it would make it far less likely I will die sooner than later and give me a chance to use some of my talents.

    I've been thinking a lot lately of how this body that doesn't work so well enough of the time to function how society would like me to has given my spirit plenty of room to get bloody strong or give up, let the bullies of the world stop me from being who i am, a person of worth, just like every other person I see writing here who are unable to function to the apparent societal demand to be able minded/bodied and only pay taxes not be a drain on the funding of the rich.

    Sorry not sure how this fits in as I just wrote what this and subsequent comments brought up of my own experience. It is a sad society that can't handle pain so causes more pain to flourish, be held onto and not spoken about for fear it will cause uncomfortable feelings, pain is so feared because it hurts and is really not nice but it is there, it can be ignored but it doesn't just go away, compassion and care helps, not bullying...sigh

  17. soon we won't even be able to sleep on the streets or get food from the Salvation Army:
    suicidal thoughts are part of my depression and anxiety. so far, i haven't made an attempt, but that's only a matter of time and circumstances. it's easy to see what's going to happen to the sick and the vulnerable if this evil government continues what it's doing: first single us out as scapegoats, exaggerate the level of fraud (at under 1% it's a lot lower than fraudulent claims from MPs), have banner headlines screaming about how much those of benefits get (making the exception appear to be the norm), then the debate about how as a country the sick and disabled cost us too much (what are we meant to do? of course there are so many jobs out there and employers crying out to employ the sick and disabled).
    anyone who's ever studied 20th century history will recognise this and the last Government's propoganda - straight out of Nazi Germany.

  18. i think sucide is important to discuss, i know when i have written my will it will increase my risk, someone from the cmht team told me how i can do it. they paniced and said drinking and that meds cud kill me. so i know how to die, i have often talked about it and when i am that black it has stopped me, what terrifies me is that if i lose my benefit i will not have any medical back up as i am losing my counselor. I ve been told to get lost by the cmht and i wanted a proper assement. They don't understand the next time i try, there won't be any other times after that it will be the first and the last. I have had enough of trying to manage my life with minmal support. It means i wud have to give up the place i feel safe. I come across very well, and it only if you know me, you get to know all the issues and problems that i have. I wud love to have a more normal life because it wud mean that i am not in this shit hole. i am scared cos it may kill me. What i really hate is the abuse i get for claiming, why should i have to justfiy to a stranger my mental health, my gp, and other health professionals are aware, they just don't care

  19. I talked to a friend about sucide, i ended up in a coma for nearly six months, would you call that attention seeking.....

    Unless you have suffered from depression you have no idea what you are talking about

  20. Thanks to everyone for their interesting comments on what is a important issue and a well-written piece.

    I wondering if any of the people who have commented here would like to talk to me in more detail about suicide after having their DLA cut. I am a journalist researching this for a project and think it is something that may increase when the welfare reform bill goes through but that isn't being talked about enough.

    If anyone would like to get in touch, please email ben.whitelaw[at] Thanks in advance

  21. I have tryed and failed once at suicide, 1 more anti depression tablet would have done the trick apparently, I am not good around people, and get wound up very easily, I struggle with IBS, social anxiety, and agrophobia. I have the dreaded letter from Jobcentreplus about the change that will happen, and the "assesment" that will take place with ATOS. I'm preparing myself for a showdown tbh, they wanna see someone go bat shit crazy when around people they dont know, they they chose the right person, They are barely qualified to asses me, and would save themselves a lot of time if they actually looked at my medical records.I refuse to let my life be ruined by these people and I will fight em to the end. If that means suicide on my part, then I'm just another statistic, the government doesnt give ATOS.... (sorry for the wall of text )

  22. Well said Anonymous 6 December 2011. I am another such person that the government don't give ATOS about having recently been told am 'fit for work' - only option as with most others is Appeal. Not holding out much hope that will succeed but am left no option. My GP's are not being very helpful either but will seek new GP. Of course that will probably go against me. The truth is I think the DWP have got a policy of creating as much hardship as possible just to see if people sink or swim. Relying on friends/relatives to pick up the slack. Those without frankly don't matter they think because they are weak and powerless and have no voice. WELL IT'S TIME WE ALL STARTED SCREAMING AND SHOUTING WITH ONE VOICE - weather we sink or swim in the process.

  23. Dark thoughts apart. this project to alienate people hasn't been thought through. It's a given that Atos are unqualified and the process would be more streamlined if the DWP just read the doctor's notes. I'm going through an appeal and do not have hope of success as, even though the process is barely legal, it's run through a faceless corporation that has been given carte blanche to do what thay want. The downside of this is that, after spending millions to save hundreds and throwing the sick and disabled to the wind, the fact remains that there are fit and healthy people who are not getting jobs and recieving bebefit. What I mean by this is that the DWP have merely swapped one benefit for another. This means that the government has paid a French firm billions of pounds for a saving of £20 per person on a small minority of the population. In short they have solved nothing and wasted more tax payer's money than if they'd have left the sick and injured where they were.

  24. I came across this discussion whilst searching the net for a painless way to die. Myself and my son will be effected by the changes eventually. Our housing benefit has already been cut but Im not going into the ins and outs because it no longer matters.

    My son now 25 is autistic and suffers from learning disabilities and emotional/developmental delays. I have coped with his problems alone since his premature birth of 22 weeks, where they spent thousands and struggled to keep him alive, only to leave him sitting at home doing nothing when he became an adult. He has no friends, support or life and thus neither do I. Our benefits are not much but make our life bearable. But if the changes go ahead I wont be making any threats... Me and my son will hopefully slip away painlessly in our sleep. Our story is too long and no one is really interested so when the cuts do effect us we will leave you to your world of cuts at the expense of people like us. I hope the next world will be more caring than this one.

  25. ATOS are utter scumbags I suffer fron severe social anxiety and depression and was told I had to attend an assesment or lose my benefits.I went to the assesment was sweating profusely throughout totally nervous and lost my benefits.The reason being that I turned up so basically If you dont go they stop your money and if you do go they stop your money.

  26. I have mental health problems and was seen by an ATOS assesor who is a physioptherapist who declared me fit for work.They dont care about people we are just a statistic to them they dont listen to what you say.Before ATOS took over I never had a problem as my medication was enough proof needless to say i am appealing against the decision with the full backing of my GP.