A decidedly dark subject today, but one that we need to face up to.
Regular readers will be aware that I have long taken an interest in the local politics of Vera Baird’s old constituency of Redcar and the surrounding areas of Darlington, and Easington.
The once proud mining towns have been reduced to a despicable sea of dependency on benefits – it is too trite to state the cliché invariably trotted out – ‘as a result of Maggie Thatcher’s cuts – true, it was a Conservative government which decided that it could not afford to subsidise the mining industry any longer, no matter how powerful the unions, and there may well be Labour voters out there who imagine that ‘if only’ a Labour government had remained in power, the coal mines would still be subsidised to this day – but I personally doubt it.
A Labour government would have made cuts to the present budget – but if you listen to some in the media, it reads as though all cuts are as a result of ‘Tory maliciousness’.
The political bickering as to who makes, or why, cuts in budgets, serves only to divert the conversation away from those who must endure the cuts.
In the North East, those who bear the brunt of the cuts are the young men who have been educated only to a level that allows them to take manual jobs in heavy industry – jobs which no longer existed by the time they exited that education.
It is an easy jibe to say that they are couch potatoes that need to get off their backside and get a job. There are no jobs for which they are suited. An 18 year old in Darlington today has endured 13 years of education during which he was barely taught to read and write, in the name of allowing his ‘creativity’; barely disciplined, in the name of his human rights; and assaulted on all sides by advertising that extolled the virtues of material acquisition, houses, cars, clothes, women, alcohol – things that would make him happy and could be acquired with money.
Then he is told that he will have none of those things, because we now have a Coalition government which does not care for him, and will bar his route to the things that will make him ‘happy’.
Little wonder that he decides that his life might not be worth continuing with.
I picked up on a short story in the Northern Echo yesterday which appeared to link a rise in suicides amongst young men in the area with the Coalition government now in power for a bare six months.
A SHARP rise in the number of suspected suicides across County Durham could be linked to the recession and the impact of Government cuts.
The story went on to tell of the ‘first rapid response programme being set up’ as a result of a suspected ‘cluster’ of 21 suicides last year….when we still had a Labour government. It told of the £750,000 grant made available to implement ‘prevention measures’.
My first thought was that if these suicides were as a result of ‘Tory cuts’ – then £750,000 wasn’t going to alleviate the problem, and where had this money come from?
The trail led me to County Durham and Darlington NHS Trust – ‘unavailable today by telephone due to unforeseen circumstances’. Intriguing? What unforeseen circumstances can lead to an entire health trust being unavailable for a day? I’ll let you know when I find out! A fruitless telephone call to Durham Samaritan’s service, when it became apparent that the phone line was only working in one direction – the soothingly voiced young women started saying ‘are you finding it difficult to talk’, and ‘we are here to help you, tell me what the problem is in your own time’; until finally I tracked down Charlie Walker on a train to London.
Charlie is an interesting man, an ex-miner, 68 years old, and genuinely interested in his constituents, more interested in them than he is in politics.
Where, I asked him, did this three quarters of a million pounds come from?
‘I don’t know’, was the stark reply. ‘This all started a couple of years ago when I discovered that some of my constituents were taking themselves out to parkland in broad daylight and using dog choke chains to hang themselves, and I couldn’t believe that no one had any idea why they were doing it’.
He kicked up a fuss at his local council meeting – and was exhorted to keep quiet. ‘We don’t want all this getting in the media’ was the general attitude.
Charlie didn’t keep quiet. He went on kicking up a fuss. Eventually the (Labour) government sent a top psychiatrist down from London, Malcolm Rae, to carry out an investigation into the matter. His conclusion was that there was no link between the deaths, other than that these young people were ‘vulnerable’.
One surprising result of all this activity was that the local Mental Health Trust ‘suddenly’ discovered that it might have £750,000 about its person that was intended for this very purpose. Not that they had ever mentioned it before, in fact it is Charlie’s opinion that if he hadn’t made such a fuss, it might well have been moved ‘sideways’ into buying wheelchairs for social services, or some diversity project.
It was especially surprising, because Charlie had already raised the issue of young men returning to the area from Afghanistan and needing mental health counselling – and been told to keep quiet yet again for this was the ‘British Legion’s problem’.
Suddenly the main stream media have taken an interest in the matter, and no one minds talking to the press.
Brian Keys, North-East director of commissioning for mental health with NHS County Durham and Darlington, said the number of suspected suicides in the past seven weeks was “highly unusual”.
A total of £750,000 has been pledged to improve the ability to rapidly identify surges in suicide numbers and implement prevention measures.
The local paper is happy to quote Charlie Walker when he says:
“Some of the reasons are deprivation, debt and marital problems, but we also have to look at unemployment,” he said. “The direction we are heading as a country has contributed to this. I saw it after the mines closed down. We had young miners jumping off cliffs and I fear the same thing happening again.”
I cannot say whether the journalist writing that story also heard Charlie say, as he did to me, that a generation of children have been brought up to believe that they could have it all so long as ‘someone’ provided them with a job, and that the only people stopping them having a job were those nasty ‘Tory’s’ – now back in power. But I can assure you after talking to him, that the last person seeking to make political capital out of these suicides is Councillor Charlie Walker, who has been the driving force behind efforts to discover the real reason for the hopelessness felt by a generation of young men.
He is genuinely concerned for the young in his area, as we all should be –painting this generation as idle good for nothings who merely want to live off the state is not helping them, nor is making political capital out of a ‘sudden rise since June’ in the number of suicides. The real reason is far deeper than that, and if anybody believes that it is as simple as ‘deprivation, debt and marital problems’ – £750,000 is not going to solve it.
Perhaps what is needed from ‘big society’ is that we all take personal responsibility for a least one young person, and try to give them a sense of perspective – deprivation has happened before in communities – the war years come to mind – and people have survived. Life is more than the latest pair of trainers. Those of us who are old can understand that – but the young man of 18 has never known any other world, can imagine no pleasures that don’t require money.
Addendum: It seems that amongst the uses this money is being put to – Durham NHS having now got over their ‘unforeseen circumstances’ and replied to me just as I was about to hit ‘publish’ – is the following initiative:
- fast access to talking therapy/counselling support through the development of ‘community responders’ i.e. supported by the local voluntary sector we will train members of local communities to be able to recognise suicide risk, provide a listening ear to those in need and to be able to sign post them on the appropriate services and support. These individuals will work at grass roots level to support those who may not traditionally come forward to access health services. We will pilot this in east Durham in the coming weeks and then consider developing networks of community responders across the county.
Whilst laudable, this still only addresses the problems of those who are ‘seen as’ a suicide risk – rather than the entire generation. However, it is a start, and I would urge anyone who is in the East Durham area to sign up and support it – or just to take their own initiative and take an interest in at least one young person and help them through this period. It really isn’t their fault – but they are paying the price.