Burden and benefits-related suicides: “misperception” or state crafted reality?

Abstract

Purpose: This article aims to focus on deaths by suicide in relation to UK welfare reform as a case study to question one of suicidology’s most dominant theories – the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Joiner, 2005) and its influential ideas on “perceived burdensomeness” – as well as wider ideologies on suicide and mental health reflected in this approach. Design/methodology/approach: This article draws on evidence from disabled people’s campaigning groups (primary sources) and research literature (secondary sources), which shows the negative psychological impact of burden discourse and how this shows up in people’s accounts of feeling suicidal, in suicide notes and in family accounts of those who have died by suicide. It uses this evidence to problematise the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (Joiner, 2005), specifically its ideas about “burden” as an individual misperception, and the assumption that suicide is always the outcome of mental health problems. Findings: The findings highlight the systemic, intersectional and cumulative production of suicidality by governmental “welfare reform” in the UK, through positioning welfare claimants as “burdens” on society. They show that by locating the problem of burdensomeness in individual “misperceptions”, the Interpersonal Theory allows the government’s role in crafting stigmatisation and conditions of suicidality to be overlooked and to be reproduced. Originality/value: The article raises urgent ethical questions about the application of approaches, such as the Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, to benefits-related suicides and calls for approaches to benefits-related harm and suicide to be rooted in social and disability justice

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