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Survey Reveals Cost of Living Struggles as Top Cause of Suicidal Behaviours

Victorians have it the worst, with over half of its people experiencing cost-of-living and personal debt distress beyond normal levels.

The latest quarterly survey by Suicide Prevention Australia has revealed that people living in Victoria have the highest rate of financial distress, with over half (54 percent) reporting they are struggling with everyday expenses.

This is a rise of seven percentage points in 12 months, and 16 percentage points compared to 18 months ago.

But the figures aren’t much better in other parts of the country, with 49 percent of people in NSW and 47 percent of Queenslanders reporting they’re in financial distress in the three months to March—increases of 11 and four percentage points, respectively, over the figures 18 months ago.

Across the country, the average is 50 percent.

Cost-of-living distress is now double all other economic and social issues that determine suicide for the first time in the survey’s history.

Some of the highest increases in the March 2024 quarter were amongst full-time workers (55 percent) and families with children under 18 at home (54 percent), compared to 41 percent (+14pp) and 38 percent (+16pp) respectively in the September 2022 quarter.

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Data from the National Debt Helpline reflects the results of the survey. The helpline reported a 20 percent year-on-year growth in calls from Victoria for January, with the most common questions being about paying a mortgage, credit card debt and household electricity bill.

Chief Executive of Suicide Prevention Australia Nieves Murray said the result clearly showed more needed to be done to support Victorians experiencing financial and mental distress, which could increase rates of relationship breakdowns, substance abuse issues or self-harm.

“The fact that we are seeing cost-of-living distress continuing to escalate despite a softening in inflation and interest rates should be of real concern for our political and corporate leaders,” she said.

Government Programs to Help

The Reserve Bank of Australia has left the cash rate at 4.35 percent since November 2023. The next announcement is scheduled for May 7, the same day as the Victorian budget will be delivered by Treasurer Tim Pallas.

In the past, the government has cited free kindergarten, free TAFE courses and power-saving bonuses as examples of its support for households.

At the 2022 election, Labor also promised to spend $4 million on a mental health training program for Victorian apprentices which is expected to commence in August and initially target the building industry.

However, clinical psychologist Natalie Flatt said that the program should be expanded to include other industries as soon as possible.

She said she and her colleagues had noticed more clients raising cost-of-living pressures during therapy.

“They’re struggling to make ends meet. We can see a lot of relationship breakdowns, a rise in substance abuse and, unfortunately, we do see the rise in suicide rates,” she said. “At a workplace level, [there is a] productivity dip. We can’t leave those stresses at the door.”

That was echoed by Ms. Murray, who said, “With federal and state government budgets, and further cost-of-living relief still months away, it’s clear more needs to be done to help ease the financial and mental distress of Australians right now.

“We know it’s two to three years after a critical event like a pandemic or environmental disaster that suicide rates often begin rising. The fact we are seeing cost-of-living distress continuing to escalate despite a softening in inflation and interest rates should be of real concern for our political and corporate leaders,” she said.

Reasons for Suicidal Behaviour

Cost-of-living and personal debt were also the main cause of elevated distress amongst Australians reporting suicidal behaviours (58 percent), as well as from those seeking help from frontline suicide prevention services (54 percent), particularly clinical services (64 percent).

However, Suicide Prevention Australia says that while it’s heartening to see about two-thirds of people experiencing suicidal behaviours and financial distress seeking help from a suicide prevention service, it believes that there’s another one-in-three, or potentially hundreds of thousands, of Australians in distress that aren’t seeking help.

“This is coming on top of three years of fires, floods and social isolation that have already put a significant strain on the community’s physical and psychological resilience,” Ms. Murray said.

“That’s why we need to accelerate the current rollout of a whole-of-government, not just mental health approach to suicide prevention. This includes national suicide prevention legislation requiring that key economic and social policies don’t have unintended consequences.”

During the 16 years after the 2006 Basic Act for Suicide Prevention was introduced in Japan, suicide deaths fell by about 40 percent and then saw a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victorian Shadow Treasurer Brad Rowswell called on the government to include cost-of-living relief in the May budget.

“After a decade of Labor introducing new taxes on everything from rents, jobs, schools, and even weekends away, the cost-of-living pressures on Victorian households are at crisis point,” he said. “Labor cannot manage money, and Victorians shouldn’t be the ones to pay the price of the government’s own financial mismanagement.”

Other issues worrying Australians revealed by the survey included housing access and affordability (22 percent); unemployment and job security (21 percent); social isolation and loneliness (20 percent); family and relationship breakdown (23 percent); and drugs and alcohol (10 percent).

To get help 24/7, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007. If you or someone you know are in immediate danger, phone 000 for emergency services.

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