The Grim Reaper, it would appear, has our cards marked and is sharpening his scythe in anticipation. That’s because suicides go up when unemployment goes up, like now, and accidents at work also increase in times of recession, like now.
That gloomy picture is what emerged during yesterday evening’s presentation by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, at King’s College, London.
Visiting speaker, Oxford University’s Dr David Stuckler, told us that suicide rates went up 40% during the great depression of the 1930s, as they did in the former Eastern Bloc countries in the post-Communist recession of the 1990s.
The World Health Organisation has warned us to expect, in 2009, ‘more stresses, suicides and mental disorders’ as the credit crunch takes hold. ‘The health community should prepare for the worst,’ the Lancet said in January 2009. ‘Econocide to surge as recession bites,’ the BBC predicted in March 2009, conflating economy with suicide and/or homicide – and murders, Stuckler informed us, go up 0.8% for every 1% rise in unemployment.
So that’s it, then. We might as well go home and watch daytime TV until we’re summoned to the great dole queue in the sky. Except there is good news among all the gloom.
Mortality rates excluding suicide went down 10% in the great depression. (They rose again when prohibition was lifted and people were free to drink too much alcohol again, but let’s not be party-poopers.)
The Los Angeles Post, earlier this year, headlined with: ‘Good news: recession may make you healthier!’, while on the eastern seaboard the New York Times claimed: ‘Recession may be a lifestyle blessing in disguise’. For those of you whose new ‘lifestyle’ means eking a living on job seeker’s allowance, the papers were referring to the leisure time you now have to take healthy exercise and eat wholesome food – rather than washing down three-course dinners with a bottle or two of Bordeaux.
Unconvinced? Then let’s feed your cynicism with another statistic. Stuckler’s research showed that there would be no rise in the suicide rate during a recession if the government devoted $190 of ‘social spending’ to every person who had lost his or her job or whose job was at risk. ‘Social spending’ in this context means injecting funds to improve the labour market, supporting the family and ensuring better healthcare, for example.
‘The government spent $18,000 per person in Britain to rescue the banking system,’ Stuckler said. ‘Around 1% per person of that would help people back into jobs - and save lives.’
The second speaker, Professor Steve Tombs of Liverpool John Moores University, reassured us that the biggest threat to our lives was not murder – because, the sting in the tail explained, we were three times more likely to die from a work-related accident.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), Tombs said, claims there are just 220-250 fatalities a year at work, but this climbs to around 1,500 when you take into account road traffic accidents where the driver, on either side, was working. Factor into that figure the 50,000 deaths a year from occupational diseases, many of which only manifest themselves in later life, and work becomes a serial killer on a monstrous scale.
Compounding the problem, the HSE is under-resourced and prosecutions are down 60% on ten years ago.
Mick Antoniw, a partner at national law firm Thompsons, said employers during recessions looked for ways to cut overheads so their tenders for work were more cost-competitive. This, combined with a culture that regarded safety at work as excessive red tape, discouraged investigations and led to fatalities. ‘There’s a shroud of mystique around health and safety, when it’s mostly just commonsense – and it saves lives.’
Tombs concluded: ‘Why are there so many policemen on the streets when the real danger lurks in the workplace? We need more HSE inspectors, investigations and prosecutions.’