By Matthew McLean, Acting CEO, Suicide Prevention Australia
As we head into the depths of winter, I can’t help but think of those sleeping rough or worried about how to keep a roof over their head.
Interest rates are rising, rents are soaring and all signs are it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
At Suicide Prevention Australia we spend a lot of time thinking about the many, varied risk factors of suicide. Research shows us housing insecurity and homelessness are both linked to increased risks of suicidal behaviour.
With rising rates, a growing housing shortage and financial hardship, the risk factors for experiencing homelessness are high and getting higher.
We know those experiencing homelessness are more likely to face mental health issues. For a number of years, I volunteered at the Matthew Talbot Hostel in Sydney. Week after week I’d see firsthand the complex overlap between homelessness and distress.
Australian research utilising the Queensland Suicide Register found people experiencing homelessness was almost double the suicide rate than those that don’t. Global evidence confirms that economic recessions, increased foreclosure, and evictions are correlated with increases in poor mental health and suicide rates.
Financial stress from the costs of housing and uncertainty from evictions or insecure housing also have a real impact.
With the annual St Vinnie’s CEO Sleepout this week, it’s a good time to reflect on how we can better support those who are vulnerable in our communities.
We are at critical juncture for suicide prevention. Despite the increased distress during the pandemic, we did not see an increase in suicide deaths. There are many reasons for this, but a significant factor was the boosting of a range of government and government-funded supports.
I’m not just talking about increased funding to helplines and mental health and suicide prevention support, it was also JobSeeker, JobKeeper, and eviction moratoriums that all played a role in containing rates of suicide deaths.
With many of the pandemic supports no longer in place, now is the time for action. We need to address it across government and the community. We need to look at the upstream causes – this requires action in the areas of welfare support and social housing.
There has to be a much broader understanding of suicide prevention that involves looking closely at housing stability and homelessness. Access to secure housing is vital to keeping people safe and ultimately reducing distress.
We need more investment in housing affordability, social housing and homelessness services.
The annual sleepout is just one way to help raise awareness and hopefully motivate policy change. Identifying people at risk of homelessness and intervening with support is important to prevent more people from experiencing homelessness.
Interventions for suicide prevention among homeless populations should be comprehensive and comprise housing and social support as well as mental health services.
It’s this kind of whole-of-government approach we need to see legislated in a Suicide Prevention Act. It’s about ensuring all government decisions, including those on housing and homelessness supports, factor in the risks of suicides.
This is what I’ll be thinking about during the Sleepout. I hope you’ll join me in thinking about it too. Those experiencing or at risk of homelessness deserve no less.