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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Natasha May

More than half of Australian families report higher than normal distress due to cost of living

A couple doing paperwork at a table
A survey by Suicide Prevention Australia found 56% of Australian families have reported cost-of-living distress beyond normal levels. Photograph: PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou/Getty Images

More than half of Australian families are reporting higher than normal distress due to rising cost of living, according to new data from Suicide Prevention Australia.

The organisation’s community tracker has found cost of living and personal debt to be the highest cause of distress among Australians for the fifth quarter in a row, with 46% nationally reporting elevated distress this September quarter compared with 40% in June.

For families with children at home under 18 years of age, the numbers were even higher (56%), up 20% since June. It represents the first time since the organisation started surveying Australians four years ago that more than half of families reported cost-of-living distress beyond normal levels.

The tracker also found families were twice as likely to call a frontline suicide prevention service for help (14%) than others nationally (7%).

Nieves Murray, the chief executive of Suicide Prevention Australia, said the findings were a “warning sign” of the risk of distress being felt in Australian households converting into suicide rates.

Guardian Australia reported in August that demand for Lifeline services was spiking to the highest ever levels likely because of cost-of-living pressures, with increasing numbers referring to financial distress when calling the helpline.

Suicide Prevention Australia’s community tracker is a quarterly survey in partnership with YouGov of more than 1,000 representative adults, with the September quarter results based on answers given online between 10 and 13 August.

The number of people reporting distress due to cost of living was nationally nearly double those reporting distress due to any of the top four issues, including housing access and affordability (24%), social isolation and loneliness (24%), family and relationships breakdown (22%) and unemployment and job security (19%).

Clare Kinsella, a director at Suicide Prevention Australia, said “there’s a strong link between financial distress and suicide, housing instability and suicide”.

Kinsella said data showed that two to three years after a crisis, such as a flood, bushfire or pandemic, distress levels and suicide rates can rise. “You overlay those large crises with rising interest rates, housing access challenges, it’s not surprising that we’re seeing this at the moment given the Australian economy.”

In New South Wales and Victoria, which are the only states which collect suicide data but represent over half the national population between them, deaths rose an average 7% in 2022.

Edwina MacDonald, the deputy chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, said Suicide Prevention Australia’s research was consistent with what Acoss had heard in its latest cost-of-living survey. It heard the inability to afford life’s essentials, such as food and rent, was affecting physical and mental health.

“They tell us they are mentally exhausted, living in fear of the next bill, unable to afford medication, and feeling isolated and depressed as leaving home becomes too expensive,” MacDonald said.

Kinsella said the federal government should invest more in crisis services and crisis support.

The organisation also called on the government to implement a National Suicide Prevention Act, which would allow for a whole-of-government approach to suicide prevention, as every portfolio would have to be aware of the effect of their decisions on distress and suicide rates.

Kinsella said when people die by suicide it is usually because of a range of factors, which can include financial distress alongside other factors such as a relationship breakdown or social isolation.

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