Mental health organisations have warned that suicides could increase as financial support such as jobkeeper is removed, but they have welcomed figures which show there has been no increase in the number of suicides in Victoria this year.
The Victorian coroners court published data from the Victorian Suicide Register on Thursday showing that 466 people have died from suicide in the state so far this year, compared to 468 people in the same period last year.
The figures are current to 26 August, and the coroners court said the register – which is updated daily, with some deaths added or removed later following an investigation – had 95% accuracy over time.
The Lifeline chairman, John Brogden, said that every death from suicide was a tragedy, but the figures were better than he might have feared. However, he said he was concerned rates would increase when the jobkeeper payment, which will reduce from next month, expires in March.
“I do credit jobkeeper with having an enormous impact on reducing impacts on mental health,” he told Guardian Australia. “Just to know that there will be money coming into your account for the foreseeable future. We did feel a tangible drop in the temperature of people calling Lifeline [when it was announced].”
When that expired and the recession deepened, Brogden said, he expected to see “a further increased demand for services, a further increase in calls to lifeline and a further increase in the risks of suicide”.
“That’s when the tide goes out on all the supports that have been keeping people going, and the hard reality sets in.”
The coronial data is the first released on rates of suicide in Australia during the pandemic, and follows months of speculation and warnings that the suicide rate would skyrocket as people struggled with isolation, job losses and the despair that comes from a global health crisis.
But demand for mental health services has increased. A survey of 200 people with mental illness, completed by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council this week, found that more than half of all respondents had contemplated suicide, and either contemplated self-harm or actually self-harmed.
“These are the people who already have mental illness, and we know there’s an increase in people that are having suicidal ideation,” the council’s chief executive, Tricia Szirom, told Guardian Australia. That was more prevalence in people aged under 30.
Szirom said people with mental illness who were previously coping well outside of the system – with regular psychological appointments and managed medication and other strategies – had suddenly hit a wall.
“The lockdown is a problem … it’s loneliness,” she said. “People are lonely. A lot of people live alone … there’s also a sense of despair. Will we ever get out of this? Are we going to have more pandemics?”
The Victorian government last month reported a 33% increase in people being treated at emergency departments for intentional self-harm, and calls to support lines such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue have doubled.
Prof Pat McGorry told a Victorian parliamentary inquiry on Thursday that mental health modelling showed there could be an increase in suicides over the next three to four years, meaning there was still time to enact preventative measures “because these people have not died yet”.
“The timescale might be affected by [the economy] but I think maybe the reason we haven’t seen the deaths rise yet is because of the effectiveness of government policy so far,” McGorry said. “And probably also shows the intense distress that we all face. I think through the pandemic and the lockdowns, everyone’s mental health has suffered a bit, hasn’t it?”
Jill Gallagher, the chief executive of the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, told the inquiry that the numbers in the coroner’s report did not track with what she said was a marked increase in suicides in the Aboriginal community, with four reported last week alone.
“We’ve had a humungous increase,” Gallagher said. “I’m not prepared to say what those numbers are, [but a] humungous increase in suicides.”
The organisation did not provide more detail, and the coroners court said it was unable to release a racial breakdown of its data.
Georgie Harman, the chief executive of Beyond Blue, said an increase in suicides was “not inevitable” as financial supports such as jobkeeper and the increased jobseeker rate dropped, but that governments, services and individuals needed to be aware of the risk and maintain “eternal vigilance”. That included talking openly in an informed way about suicide.
Harman said that since the stage-four lockdown began in Melbourne, two-thirds of calls to Beyond Blue had come from Victoria. The majority of those who called were under the age of 35.
Harman said that while funding to mental health services had increased in response to the pandemic, “we know that the level of investment still does not match the level of demand”.
She said funding should focus on wraparound services and be based on outcomes, not the level of activity it generates.
• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Source: The Guardian