Financial struggles could lead to spike in suicide rates, leading charity warns
Scotland’s national mental health charity has warned there is a “critical” need to invest in mental health and support services amid growing concern that the current economic climate could lead to more people contemplating suicide.
Experts at the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) said the pressures imposed by inflation and the cost of living crisis are causing distress and anxiety among people suffering with financial problems, and warned that they could “only mitigate them for so long”.
With fears that a flatlining UK economy could slide into recession, the charity stressed that a “window of opportunity” was available to bolster suicide prevention resources ahead of any downturn so few people as possible end up at “crisis point”.
One young person with lived experience of suicide told Scotland on Sunday how financial problems left her in “one of the darkest places” she had ever been, and called for greater investment to tackle mental health service waiting lists. “Is it going to take someone being admitted to an intensive care unit before they’re listened to?” she said.
Data published last week by the National Records of Scotland showed a small annual increase in the number of probable suicides, with the rate almost 2.6 times higher in the most deprived areas of the nation compared to the most well off. While links between deprivation and preventable suicide deaths are long established, there is mounting concern over the impact of worsening economic conditions.
Earlier this year, a international group of experts wrote to science journal Nature warning that severe economic downturns were often accompanied by increases in suicide. The experts, including Professor Rory O’Connor, who leads the suicidal behaviour research laboratory at the University of Glasgow, stressed that “now is the time” to act, and called for a strategic approach combining economic, public health, and frontline service measures.
Dan Farthing, head of suicide prevention at SAMH, said there was a clear danger posed by economic conditions. “The reality is everyone is vulnerable, but when the economic cycle goes down, or there’s a shock, the people who are least well able to weather that storm are often already in the most vulnerable groups,” he said.
“There’s a body evidence showing that when the economics turn down, you can expect a rise in the suicide rate. There’s a lot of angst about whether we’re going into a recession, but it doesn’t matter for those people already enduring financial distress. The longer they’re in that position, the more dangerous it is.”
Mr Farthing pointed to Scotland’s agricultural sector as one exposed area, given cost of living pressures, coupled with the price of raw materials, uncertainty around funding, and recruitment problems. “We are concerned this may be one of the groups facing pressure, and because it’s a relatively small part of the Scottish economy, there’s a danger it may be overlooked,” he explained.
Kira Holliman, from Glasgow, knows first hand the ruinous impact financial insecurity can have. Last year, poor health left her unable to work, marking the beginning of a spiral that saw Kira and her partner being declared homeless. For someone already diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety, who has previously self-harmed and wanted to take her own life, it proved a near disastrous set of circumstances.
“Having drug addicts and prostitutes outside your door, not knowing where you’re going to be living at the end of the day, it’s one of the darkest places I’ve been in my life,” the 23 year-old said. “The intrusive thoughts were absolutely terrifying.”
Now in housing association accommodation, and working as an apprentice, Ms Holliman said she is in a “better position,” despite still struggling financially. She said educating young people around personal finances would be a preventative step, and emphasised the need for improved NHS services.
Earlier this summer, the Scottish Government launched a new mental health strategy praised by SAMH for its decade-long scope, which can account for longer economic cycles. The government has pointed out that NHS spending on mental health reached £1.3 billion in 2021/22, up from £1.1bn in 2019/20, with the aim of devoting 10 per cent of frontline NHS spending to the issue.
But SAMH has pointed out that the proportion of the spending on mental health has fallen from 9.12 per cent in 2011/12 to 8.78 per cent in 2021/22, with existing provision insufficient to meet demand. Such arguments are evidenced in the latest waiting times data, which flagged quarterly and annual declines in those beginning psychological therapy treatments within 18 weeks of referral. The figure among adults currently stands at 78.8 per cent, well short of the government’s 90 per cent standard. For children and adolescents, the figure is just 73.8 per cent.
Mr Farthing said it was crucial that those numbers were reduced as part of a holistic approach. “The longer people are on waiting lists, they can very quickly feel forgotten about and uncared for, so we need to make sure they’re as short as possible, and ensure there are other services and routes available,” he said.
“Some people may be reaching out initially out of financial need, but it’s important to identify if there are other threats they face, and ensure they’re signposted towards other services. It’s not realistic to simply expect people to be resilient.”
Ms Holliman echoed such calls. Above all, however, she urged people to speak out, start open conversations, and seek help. “As long as you’re able to speak to people, it can give you that piece of mind, and let you know that things will be better,” she added.
If you have serious concerns for someone's safety, it's important to call 999. Anyone affected by the issues in this story can find help by contacting SAMH's information service, open Monday to Friday, on 0344 800 0550, or by visiting its website at www.samh.org.uk. The Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 via their helpline on 116 123.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.