Isabel Hardman

Ed Miliband must be careful when he talks about suicide

Ed Miliband must be careful when he talks about suicide
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Jim Waterson's BuzzFeed interview with Ed Miliband is well worth a read. But the opening paragraph stands out in particular:

'Ed Miliband was in Nottingham last Tuesday when a man approached him to say that his part-time job at a petrol station wasn’t paying enough to take care of two children. This is an anecdote of the sort Miliband is always telling in his campaign to lower Britain’s cost of living, but what the man said next was “chilling.”

'“He was really, really desperate because he felt couldn’t properly provide for his family,” Miliband recalls. “He was thinking of ending it all because he just couldn’t make ends meet.”

'“Suddenly bacon sandwiches look slightly beside the point,” Miliband says.'

That word 'because', which suggests a direct link between government policies or government failure and a suicide is a high-risk political tactic. High-risk in the sense that simple causal links are the sort of thing that journalists are expressly advised to avoid in their reporting of these deaths. Here is an extract from the Samaritans' guidelines on the subject:

'Approximately 90 per cent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem at the time of death.

'Over-simplification of the causes or perceived ‘triggers’ for a suicide can be misleading and is unlikely to reflect accurately the complexity of suicide.

'For example, avoid the suggestion that a single incident, such as loss of a job, relationship breakdown or bereavement, was the cause.

'It is important not to brush over the complex realities of suicide and its devastating impact on those left behind.'

In Bridgend in 2007-09, police became suspicious that newspaper coverage of a spate of teenage suicides was leading to more deaths. Why? Because if someone reading a report of a suicide is encouraged to think that the circumstances the deceased person was in were the cause of that death, and the reader happens to be in similar circumstances themselves, then they may think that their only option is to kill themselves too. Left-wing campaigner Ellie Mae O'Hagan has written before about the dangers of the newspapers being simplistic on this issue: politicians should be similarly careful.

This is not an attempt to defend all the government's benefit cuts or policies or to dismiss the cost-of-living crisis as something that does not put serious pressure on families. The 'bedroom tax' has a stupid name but it is also a pretty stupid policy, as it takes no account of a tenant's ability or efforts to move. The Work Capability Assessment is poorly-designed and will remain flawed when a new contractor replaces Atos to carry out the tests. Flawed policies remain flawed whether or not the people affected by them take their own lives: suicide is not in any way an effective measure of how badly a government has messed up.

A few months ago I mentioned in my column a friend who had fallen acutely mentally ill. His crisis was connected to something entirely prosaic that politicians will never be able to ban, and many of the suicides that do take place in this country, if they do have a discernible trigger point, stem from similar occurrences. Ed Miliband will not, even if he confounds his critics and turns out to be a fantastic Prime Minister, be able to stop people in desperate circumstances contemplating suicide.

What those in crisis, like my friend, need the most from politicians is not a promise that they'll get rid of all the things that seem to make their illness worse - that would be quite impossible - but for them to work on giving patients better and quicker access to talking therapies, and for crisis care not to be so patchy across the country. A seven month wait for the former is not good enough. Health professionals fear that other patients' lives are at risk because of the latter.

I've always written that Ed Miliband strikes me as a decent politician - I said it again earlier this week - but this is not particularly decent behaviour. He mentioned mental health recently at Prime Minister's Questions, albeit the one before the Budget so that no-one paid a great deal of attention. But it was still heartening to hear it mentioned at all, and it's heartening that politicians are starting to compete a little more over who has the best offer for those with mental illnesses. It's never going to be the top issue along with the economy and issues such as immigration, but mental ill health affects one in four people, so mulling how to offer voters something on this area is reasonably smart.

What's not heartening is the performance of so many mental health trusts, and the shortage of beds that sees people at their very lowest ebb being driven hundreds of miles before somewhere sufficiently safe can be found for them. Or the waiting lists for talking therapies that leave people who need help languishing, their conditions often worsening.

If Miliband wants to show that he takes suicide seriously, then he must be careful not to suggest it is as simple as he seems to imply and he could instead pour a little bit more effort into campaigning on the mental health care that many of those people need in order to turn away from those dark thoughts. His comments to BuzzFeed were at best unhelpful and at worst opportunistic. The party leader who wants to portray himself as decent could do a lot better than this.

P.S. Anyone who does need help should contact the Samaritans. Here's their website and their number is 08457 909090.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is author of Why We Get The Wrong Politicians.

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