The good news - and this is stretching things - is that unemployment in the North West appears to be falling, based on the number signing on in the region. Last month in Derry, 38 fewer people claimed benefit than in April. The number also fell in Strabane (by 17) and Limavady (where it was down 14). The good news ends there, though.
The bad news is that Derry is still leading the rest of the North a merry dance when it comes to numbers on the dole. The 5,372 signing on here represent 7.5% of the working age population. The next highest – in percentage terms – are Strabane and Belfast with 6.9%. You should remember, too, that the number signing on doesn’t include the number of people who are ‘economically inactive’ – the sick or disabled, students, retired people, carers and so on. And before there’s any danger of you getting carried away on a wave of positivity, remember, too, that in unemployment terms Northern Ireland’s performed worst of all 12 UK regions over the last year.
At risk of swamping you completely with facts and figures, it has been easy to miss one truly frightening statistic which emerged this week and which is directly relevant to all the foregoing. Northern Ireland recorded its highest ever death toll from suicide last year: 313 people lost their lives – almost eighty per cent of them male. The number of male suicides rose in the Republic, too, from 379 up to 427.
The figures were published in a new report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. The document, ‘Facing the Challenge – The Impact of the Recession and Unemployment on Men’s Health in Ireland’, revealed that the recent economic reverses on both sides of the border had had a dramatic effect on the male population. Recession, unemployment and redundancy have caused high levels of stress and anxiety, leading more and more men to abuse alcohol or drugs, and causing a deterioration in physical health.
When you combine the statistics for North and South, you discover that 667 men lost their lives to suicide last year – a truly staggering total and a figure which far exceeds, for example, the conflict-related death toll for 1972 - the bloodiest year of our Troubles.
This waste of human life is a challenge not just for health professionals, service-providers and community organisations but for the governments in both jurisdictions. The report found that recession and unemployment were having “extremely adverse effects” on men’s mental health generally. But there was an all-too-familiar, added complication: most males tend to bottle up their feelings, don’t communicate willingly and are reluctant to seek help.
Our current economic under-performance augurs badly for the foreseeable future in job and health terms. If the correlation between recession and suicide are as strong as the IPH report suggests, one shudders to think about the demoralising impact of endemic unemployment here in the North West.
This new report shows the critical importance of creating new jobs – and plenty of them – as a matter of the utmost urgency. Meanwhile, I would suggest, the North West deserves to be the subject of a deeper study in its own right to ascertain the state of the local population’s mental health. Who knows what that might reveal! I think we should be told. Perhaps, though, they don’t want us to know! As a clever graffito once said, “Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”
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