Nieves Murray, CEO, Suicide Prevention Australia
We find ourselves at a critical juncture for suicide prevention. We know the risk of increasing suicide rates is often highest two to three years after a crisis, pandemic or natural disaster.
There’s also record levels of distress across our community – calls to crisis lines are the highest in our history. So, it’s unfathomable that our most vulnerable have been forgotten throughout this election campaign, with no commitment from the major parties to increase the income support base rate.
When I think about the first wave of the pandemic two years ago here in Australia, some of the first images that come to mind are the long, snaking lines of people outside Centrelink offices. As businesses prepared to shutdown, thousands of Australians joined the queue for social security. Many had never before sought welfare, most never thought they would.
Soon after, we saw a significant but appropriate response from Government. The JobSeeker rate was doubled and the introduction of JobKeeper saw so many Australians keep their income and keep their connection to their employer.
When we look at what happened to suicide rates during this time and in that first year of the pandemic, we see something that might surprise some people: they went down. In 2020, we saw a five per cent decrease in the number of deaths by suicide compared to the year prior. It begs the question, what is the link between unemployment, social security and suicide?
Suicide is a complex human behaviour with many, varied risk factors. Unemployment and financial insecurity are well-established among these factors. Victorian research shows that, of people who die by suicide, 42 per cent were under financial stress and 45 per cent were unemployed.
Global research has found for every one per cent increase in unemployment we see a corresponding one per cent increase in suicides. Around 5,000 suicide deaths were attributed to the impacts of the Global Financial Crisis. Here in Australia, suicide rates are over twice as high for people in lowest socio-economic areas compared to the highest.
What’s also well-established is that social security is a protective factor. Financial security, employment and participation all help protect us in times of distress. Again, we can look at the Global Financial Crisis where the association between unemployment and suicide was strongest in countries with least support.
In Australia, our current welfare supports are, quite frankly, inadequate. Over half of households reliant on welfare are in poverty. They struggle to put food on the table; they worry about how to keep a roof over their head. We can do better, and we must do better.
At Suicide Prevention Australia, we’ve just launched our policy position on social security which delves into the tragic link between unemployment and suicide. The evidence shows that adequate social security can reduce distress and help save lives.
We’re throwing our support behind the Raise the Rate campaign. The base rate of income supports needs to be increased to at least $69 a day and rent assistance should be increased by 50 per cent. There are a number of high-risk groups: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, newly arrived migrants and those experiencing family or domestic violence that need to be considered as a matter of priority.
Additional funds for education and employment, and employment of social workers are urgently needed. Those working at Centrelink and in employment services interact with people in distress every day, and they should all be equipped with suicide prevention training.
For a brief time during the pandemic, we saw adequate levels of social security. In an instant, Australia halved poverty and significantly reduced income inequality. At the same time, we saw a decrease in suicide deaths during an unprecedented social and economic crisis. We know what needs to be done and how effective it can be.
Whoever forms government after the 2022 Federal election will take the reins of power at a critical time for suicide prevention. We know there’s record levels of distress across our community.
So the question isn’t can we afford it? We simply can’t afford not to!