This year has been our generation’s equivalent of 1968 – changes on all fronts, and many records broken. Apart from breaking records at rugby, New Zealanders have also had recent success in breaking records at suicide.
Broadly speaking, we have some idea why people commit suicide. Although the biochemical reasons vary, the essential reason is a sustained abuse and/or neglect that convinces them it would be better to be dead than continue to live in a place where such things happen.
There is already evidence suggesting up to 90% of suicides occur in people with a mental health diagnosis or potential diagnosis, and an American study found that high rates of childhood abuse and neglect were correlated with a 12-fold increase in the frequency of suicide attempts as an adult.
Thus, it’s fair to say that – if it wasn’t already obvious to the reader – of those who attempt suicide as an adult, most will have a story of childhood abuse or neglect to tell.
What causes childhood abuse and neglect? Tragically, the answer to this is usually more childhood abuse and neglect; the child learns from its own parents that human life isn’t worth very much and naturally they treat their own children the same way. Monkey see, monkey do. Lack of empathy cascades down the generations.
Apart from this simplistic response, the strongest correlate with abuse and neglect of children is poverty. Poverty tends to lead to abuse and neglect for two reasons. The first is stress in the family unit, the second is that it causes mental illness in the mother.
Stress leads to abuse and neglect because a parent who is continually under high levels of stress will have greater difficulty maintaining the correct attitude towards their offspring. They are more likely to lash out from suppressed frustration and rage, and they are more likely to abandon consciousness through the bottle or other recreational drugs.
It might be obvious that mental illness in the mother contributes to an increased suicide rate among the offspring, but in case it isn’t obvious the science makes clear that such a causal relationship exists.
One of the most reliable factors predicting a future maltreatment report for any given child is known to be maternal depression.
It’s well known that poverty is one of the major causes of depression in women, usually because it imposes considerable psychological stress at the same time as removing women from accessing useful avenues of social support.
In fact the association between poverty and mental health is considered one of the most well-established in all of psychiatry.
For women it is especially acute because women tend to make much greater use of social networks to pre-empt mental health conditions. This means that poverty, in addition to the stress it already causes, makes it more difficult for women to maintain their social networks, and so an unfortunate feedback loop with poverty and decreased mental health outcomes can be observed.
Considering that the vast majority of people who are both poor and with dependent children are women, this pattern is especially impactful.
After reading all this, it is perhaps predictable that there is a relationship between childhood poverty and antisocial behaviour. Not only are children more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviour if they are from a home in poverty, but they are also more likely to show persistent patterns of antisocial behaviour into adulthood the more years that they spend in poverty.
All of this ultimately reflects an area where politics and health cross.
For, if poverty creates mental illness, then there’s a clear moral imperative to reduce poverty in the same way that there is a clear moral imperative to provide sanitation to people so as to prevent cholera outbreaks, typhus, plagues etc.
After all, in the same way that someone chucking a bucket of shit out into the street might impact you by creating a disease, childhood neglect and abuse is going to create the sort of adult that will rob, rape, burgle and murder you when you’re old.
However, a vote for the National Government of the past eight years was to vote for tax cuts in exchange for defunding rape crisis centres, slashing mental health funding, cutting benefits to sick people and perpetuating the war on drugs.
Looked at like this, it’s hard to deny that a vote for a National Government is a vote to decrease the mental health of everyone in the bottom half of society (or perhaps even bottom three-quarters, considering that many people vastly overestimate how wealthy they will be in ten years’ time), because it is a vote to redistribute wealth upwards from the already poor to the rich, thus increasing poverty and therefore the consequences of poverty, such as mental illness.
This might explain why so many old people vote National (the correlation between voting National in the 2014 General Election and Age is 0.81): they won’t be around to see the full extent of the damage that National policies do to the collective health of the nation, but they can cash in their tax cuts straight away.
Probably if John Key were to be presented with the information in this article he’d say that all mental health problems are caused by drug abuse. So there is little value in trying to talk sense to the current political establishment about the subject.
Perhaps the best thing to do is to educate the younger generations with the truth about how the bulk of psychological problems arose in our society, so that they’ll be in a position to do something about it when the grip of the Baby Boomers on the brass ring of power is relinquished in death.