Cost of living crisis drives surge in middle-aged male suicides

The cost of living crisis is driving rising levels of reported distress in NSW, as the nation’s peak suicide prevention group says an increase in deaths among middle-aged men should be a wake-up call for the next parliament.

Suicide Prevention Australia is calling for NSW to follow South Australia’s lead and implement dedicated suicide prevention legislation, which would require lawmakers to consider the mental health impacts of housing and welfare policies.

New data from Suicide Prevention Australia’s community tracker, a quarterly survey of the wellbeing of 1000 adults, found 77 per cent of respondents in NSW reported elevated levels of distress in February 2023 compared to the same time last year, an 8 percentage point increase from the November survey.

Cost of living and personal debt remained the No.1 issue driving elevated distress in the state (reported by 47 per cent of those surveyed, up 6 percentage points since November).

It comes after NSW Health’s latest suicide monitoring report, released at the end of February, showed a 5 percentage point increase in suspected deaths by suicide last year compared to 2021. The annual number was 2 percentage points higher than in 2019, before the pandemic.

The greatest rise was in the 55 to 64 age group, mainly by men. Rates in men aged 35 to 44 also increased, and the 2022 data showed an increasing proportion of suicides in Greater Sydney compared with the rest of NSW.

Suicide Prevention Australia acting CEO Matthew McLean said the data is a wake-up call about the impact of rising costs on the nation’s mental health.

“We are seeing this acutely among the middle-aged, middle-waged individuals – people who are managing the household budget; people who are facing soaring interest rates,” he said.

Reserve Bank of Australia governor Philip Lowe has agreed to a meeting with Suicide Prevention Australia to discuss the impact of interest rate rises on community distress and suicide rates in May.

Lifeline’s website experienced record activity in January, with referral searches by Lifeline’s helpline counsellors relating to financial issues and homelessness increasing by 49 per cent between August and January.

Suicide Prevention Australia is calling for the introduction of dedicated suicide prevention legislation in NSW. The legislation would require government departments to consider the impacts of policies in all areas of government – including housing,

“We’ve definitely seen a lot of investment in [suicide prevention in] young people, and we have seen some good outcomes from that, but we need to make sure we are investing in those other demographics, too,” he said.

The proposed act, which has the support of NSW Labor, would mirror legislation implemented last year in South Australia.

“Legislation, we’ve seen in other jurisdictions, can make a difference,” NSW Labor leader Chris Minns said.

Former South Australian Liberal parliamentarian John Dawkins – who became the state’s first premier’s advocate for suicide prevention after championing the legislation – said it had already made an impact on policy in the state, including in the development of processes for state hospital staff.

While there had not been a specific change made to housing or other welfare policy following the passing of the legislation, Dawkins said the benefit was requiring lawmakers to consider the impact of a new policy on mental health and suicide prevention.

“It gives authenticity to the work of suicide prevention in some spaces where, if you don’t give it that credibility, it drops away,” he said.

Japan introduced similar legislation in 2006. Its suicide deaths fell by about 40 per cent in 15 years, hitting a 40-year low in 2019.

Asked if she would consider such legislation, or any other policy change which would specifically target the mental health impact of housing and cost of living stress, Mental Health Minister Bronnie Taylor said the Coalition-established Mental Health Commission had “helped drive extensive reform for a whole-of-government suicide prevention approach”, including the government’s Toward Zero Suicides program, which trains government staff, such as those working at Service NSW, in suicide prevention.

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