The latterday battle of Hastings

Why has a genteel holiday resort on the East Sussex coast turned out be the suicide capital of Britain? Emma Brooker reports

Emma Brooker
Sunday 21 May 1995 23:02 BST
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Just for Laughs, a Musical Trip down Memory Lane is playing at the White Rock Theatre on the seafront at Hastings. Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman is coming soon. Plenty for day trippers to do in this town - dubbed "the birthplace of England" by the local borough council - which nestles alongside the genteel retirement resorts of Eastbourne and Bexhill-on-Sea on the East Sussex coast. There is Bottle Alley, the half-mile-long covered promenade, its concrete walls decorated with a mosaic made from thousands of broken bottles. There are the museums of embroidery and artificial flower making, and a medieval siege tent where you can hear the 1066 story narrated by Richard Baker. The Festival of Morris Dancing has been and gone, but the Town Criers Championships are coming up. Something for everyone, it seems, in this cornucopia of Merrie England.

But beneath the cheery facade, something rather terrifying is happening in this white-stuccoed seaside town. The Hastings tourist board's jokey slogan, "Popular with visitors since 1066", might be more aptly replaced by something along the lines of "Tops for topping yourself", because today the town is most remarkable for being one of the nation's suicide blackspots. The South East Thames region to which it belongs has up to 18 suicides per 100,000 compared with the national average of 12. About 20 people die by their own hand in the Hastings area each year.

High on the hill overlooking Hastings, in the airy, well-appointed Conquest Hospital, you will find Belinda Malone, one of about 60 full-time "suicide nurses" now working in Britain. Her hair in a neat, crispy perm, she wears a flowing, dark blue dress and a look of genuine but professionally detached concern. "In the past two to three years, there's really been a mushrooming of suicide specialists," she says, smiling calmly. "America's suicide rate hasn't gone up since the Seventies, Germany's is falling, but Britain's is still rising. People like me are popping up all over the place."

Malone, a Registered Mental Nurse, starts her shift at eight o'clock each weekday morning. Entering the Conquest's pristine, light-filled accident and emergency department, she finds a cluster of up to six overnight referrals waiting to see her. Most have been admitted between 8pm and midnight the previous night and will have been given medical treatment.

Spending anything up to seven hours with a patient, Malone gives counselling and plans a "package of care" for them, often by liaising between health and social services. She sees about 500 patients in the course of a year, 90 per cent of whom, she says, were glad to still be alive. None of them, she believes, has gone on to commit suicide, and only a couple have made further attempts. "I see people through glass if you like. Emotionally I have to be distant. Two of the patients have got to me so far.

"Spring is, of course, busier for suicides. March this year has been very busy, and we get a lot of attempted suicides in July," Malone explains breezily. "Hastings is a holiday area. People try to escape their problems by coming away and, when they get here, they realise it doesn't work. It is, quite literally, the end of the road for a lot of people."

This morning she has six patients: four men in their thirties and two women, one aged 16, the other aged 40. All six are local, all are "attempters" who have acted impulsively in a moment of crisis rather than making a more determined, planned effort to end their lives. All six have taken overdoses of pills.

As a group they are representative of the majority of attempted suicides, 80 per cent of whom do not have mental health problems, 93 per cent of whom take overdoses of pills. They also coincide with a new report published by the Samaritans last Friday which shows that, for the first time, the number of calls from men has overtaken those from women: 1.21 million men called the Samaritans in 1994, 10,000 more than women. Furthermore, in the past 10 years the suicide rate among men aged 35-44 has increased by a third, while the rate among those aged 15 to 24 is rising.

Malone makes a clear distinction between attempted suicides (impulsive cries for help) and suicide attempts (planned, genuine attempts to die). A large proportion of successful suicides are achieved by car exhaust poisoning and hanging, methods that don't allow for second thoughts. "Psychological autopsies" (retrospective evaluations through interviews with relatives) show that up to 90 per cent of those who actually complete suicide have mental health problems.

"Six patients sounds a lot," says Malone, "but fortunately they are relatively easy cases today. I'd say they're all here because of relationship problems. Distressed rather than depressed," says Malone. "The older woman, for example, had a row with her husband. She doesn't have a mental health problem, she's employed and has plenty of family support. She bitterly regrets having taken the overdose, feels really embarrassed and is unlikely to do it again.

"The teenage girl was impulsive and hopefully a one-off, too. She's just left school and started work and was fed up. People of that age can go from one extreme to another in a very short space of time. She does have family problems and I've referred her to social services. There is a high incidence of suicide attempts among people who've been abused as children."

Malone sees very few people aged between 50 and 65, but the suicide rate soars after that. "There is a big retired population in the area, and some of the most heart-rending cases I see are among the elderly. It takes a lot of courage for them to try to kill themselves and it is often after the loss of their partner. They usually mean it and plan it in advance. I had one woman who had put her house on the market, sold her furniture, had her dogs put to sleep and written a will. Even so, she was glad to be alive."

But this only partly explains why Hastings, of all places in Britain, should be the locus of such intense misery. By way of explanation, Malone points to the town's Victorian past. Strangely enough, a well-known Hastings suicide from this era graces the walls of the Tate Gallery in London. Lizzie Rossetti, wife of the pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and model for many of his works, died here in 1862 after overdosing on the opiate laudanum. A coroner's verdict of accidental death avoided the scandal of suicide.

At the time, Hastings was an exclusive, fashionable resort, which had been a holiday destination for the young Princess Victoria. Millionaire property developer James Burton had bought land to the west of town and built St Leonards, a model resort of grand houses, subscription gardens and designated areas such as Lavatoria where laundry workers were to live, and Mercatoria, a shopping district for workers employed by the influx of wealthy residents.

Malone is particularly familiar with St Leonards, now a seedy and run- down suburb of Hastings. Little money has been invested this century in promoting the resort and, as its attractions have waned, the big Victorian houses have been turned into residential homes and hostels or broken up into bedsits. "There are two huge housing estates in town, but few of my patients come from there. However slight the support, people there have some sort of network. But I do see a lot of people from bedsit land. Often unemployed, they may be part of a drug or alcohol culture and have limited or no friends. When they hit a life crisis, they haven't got anyone to turn to."

The four male patients Malone has seen today all belong to this group. "People migrate here from all over the country. Rents are cheap and people think, it's the south, the living will be good. They forget that it's an area of high unemployment. The European Union has recognised Hastings as an area of deprivation."

Many Hastings residents believe that the high level of mental health and social problems in their town is due to "dumping" by local authorities in London and further afield. "It has happened, unofficially, since the war," says Malone. "London boroughs bought land here, built council houses and shipped people out here. Then, when big mental institutions were being closed down in the 1960s and 1970s, people were sent this way. There is anecdotal evidence that some of the residential homes go up to London to look for clients - finding homeless people and bringing them back here."

In the absence of thriving tourism or any other industry, a local economy of sorts has grown up here around the farming of misery. The owners of hostels, bedsits and B&Bs receive government money for housing people living at a financial and psychological subsistence level - rather like the set-aside farmers paid by the EC to keep their land fallow. "In areas like this you get high levels of people wanting to die. Why keep living if there's no hope?" explains Malone.

Nineteen-year-old Paul Howard, who operates the turnstile gate at Hastings pier, knows exactly what she's talking about. "There's no work, no jobs here, nothing. I know several people who've attempted suicide. Drug dealing is one way out, there's a lot of that. People want to study, but they can't afford to go to university. I'm doing it part time. I'm going to do business studies. I'm getting out of here as fast as I can."

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