Esther McVey and the Samaritans: a conflict of interest

A picture of Kryten (an android) and Arnold Rimmer sitting in front of some controls on a spaceship, in the BBC comedy Red Dwarf.This week it was revealed that Esther McVey, the new work and pensions secretary (after Justine Greening refused the job) in the Tory government, was on the advisory board of the Samaritans, the charity which runs a helpline to support people contemplating suicide and which campaigns for awareness of the issue. The charity says that the advisory board “provides [them] with informal support, helping [them] increase [their] potential to influence and fundraise” and “has no legal or governance role in Samaritans and elects its own Chair and members”. McVey’s appointment is being criticised because many people blame government welfare policies for the suicides of people affected by them and one person I followed on Twitter said they had done an “awful thing” which led directly to a friend’s suicide. Vox Political compares her to Arnold Rimmer, “the incompetent chicken soup vending machine technician” in the British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf who killed most of the crew by exposing them to radiation. Rimmer was a Samaritan for one morning and the five people who contacted him all killed themselves, including one who only called by mistake to find out the cricket scores.

There is a further problem with Esther McVey being involved with the Samaritans. The charity are also well-known for the guidelines they publish for the media on how to report on suicide and the things to avoid, so as to reduce the risk of copycat suicides or ‘contagion’. These include not giving too much detail on the method used or suggesting that it was quick and painless, not “oversimplifying” by suggesting that there was a single cause (such as loss of a job) because around 90% of people who kill themselves are mentally ill, whether diagnosed or not, not publishing suicide notes and not suggesting suicide gets results, such as where “a bully was exposed or made to apologise” because their victim took their own life. The problem with some of these guidelines is that the suicide may indeed be a subject of a wider scandal which does need exposing, and some suicides can be prevented by taking care of things like bullying. Many people who kill themselves are indeed mentally ill, but some are also being bullied at school, abused at home or facing destitution because of such things as disability benefit cuts.

The Samaritans are invested with a great deal of authority; in the light of McVey’s appointment, people have opened up about their bad experiences with the Samaritans which they had previously kept quiet about because of their ‘saintly’ reputation (see this thread, for example). People have taken to condemning both media reporting and social media discussion of suicides because they breach one or other of the charity’s guidelines. For example, when a transgender youth took their own life in 2014 by standing in front of a moving truck on a freeway in Ohio, trans activists expressed solidarity with blog posts and social media postings, leading some trans-hostile feminists (particularly here in the UK) to sanctimoniously condemn them by quoting from the Samaritans’ guidelines, claiming that it could lead to ‘contagion’ and other suicides of trans youth, when some of these same feminists spend their time attacking prominent transgender people, labelling the medical treatment given to teenagers with gender identity disorders to stall puberty as “chemotherapy” and “child abuse” and gleefully share stories about how a minority of people regret transitioning. In other words, they do not give a damn about transgender youth; they use the guidelines to shut people up.

What’s this got to do with Esther McVey? Well, McVey is party to several years of ‘reforms’ to the disability benefit system which has shut many people out of the benefits and services they need to live as normal as possible a life — to work, to do as much as they can for themselves and hire people to do the rest, to get around. As stated earlier, there have been suicides attributed to people having these benefits taken away, often because the criteria have been designed so that only a few stereotypical impairments qualify and fluctuating conditions do not and sometimes because the privately-hired assessors have lied about what they saw when the disabled person came for their assessment. It’s possible that some of these people were already mentally ill, but some of this may be the result of abuse or other trauma they experienced in earlier life which their disability exposed them to and the same government which has cut disability benefits has also cut mental health services (McVey was never a health minister, but as a cabinet member she is subject to collective ministerial responsibility); waiting lists for mental health services are months, sometimes over a year, long and inpatient services have been cut to the bone and contracted out to private companies, some of whose units are the subject of multiple abuse complaints.

The Samaritans’ guidelines on the reporting of suicides are convenient for anyone seeking to suppress reporting of some of the consequences of current government policy because they not only discourage sensationalist reporting (which is quite justified) but also give licence to anyone seeking to suppress truthful reporting about suicides stemming from the Tories’ onslaught against disabled people in this country. Like the feminists mentioned above, they really couldn’t care about the people who are at risk; they’re just “useless eaters”, scroungers and the suchlike to them, but it helps their cause to cast victims as mentally ill and their stories as ever so complicated so let’s not even think of blaming government policy. There is a clear conflict of interest here and Esther McVey should not be working in any paid or unpaid role with a charity dedicated to preventing suicide.

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