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Suicide Prevention Australia warns of ‘third wave’ of deaths in pandemic

Lifting the base rate of the JobSeeker payment and extending JobKeeper would cushion the impact of the COVID-19 recession and could prevent a wave of suicide deaths, Suicide Prevention Australia’s State of the Nation report said.

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The peak body for suicide prevention frontline services will release the report on Thursday, calling for more investment in the sector, reliable national data collection and a new federal body to coordinate services.

The report said “accurate, reliable and timely data” was critical to tackling suicide, the leading cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 44, but that states and territories were not always providing correct figures, with a “lack of guidance” leaving a determination of suicide “at the coroner’s discretion”.

An increase in the number of open findings by state coroners of deaths that may be suicides “can mean suicide deaths are being under-reported”, the report said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt announced in June that national real-time suicide data would be part of the federal government’s COVID-19 mental health response, but his department’s timeline for the project shows it will not be completed until mid-2022.

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The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent national data shows 3046 people died from suicide in 2018. More than 770 people have died with COVID-19 in Australia in 2020.

“The longer COVID19 and its economic and social impacts run, the bigger the risk of a hidden ‘third wave’ of suicide deaths not recorded in the official virus figures,” Ms Murray said.

Australian Council of Social Services chief executive Cassandra Goldie told the National Press Club on Wednesday that people “from all walks of life … are deeply distressed about how they will cope” when the government starts to roll back COVID-19 social support.

“One of the best protectors of people’s mental health is to deliver basic financial security,” Dr Goldie said.

Out-of-work Australians will have their income support cut to $815 a fortnight after September and be forced to apply for jobs, while the coronavirus supplement will be reduced in October from $550 to $250 a fortnight, down from $550, on top of the base JobSeeker payment of $565.70.

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From September 28, JobKeeper payments will be reduced from $1500-a-fortnight to a two-tier system where people who worked full-time before March 2020 will get $1200 until January 4, when the payment will fall to $1000. Part-time workers, including those who worked fewer than 20 hours a week, will have their payments reduced to $750 and then to $650.

Ms Murray said while the “end goal” must be reducing suicide rates towards zero, Mr Hunt’s target, “our immediate priority must be minimising any risk of them increasing during and after COVID-19.”

“We must prepare now by ensuring our economic and social – not just mental health – response elevates suicide prevention as a priority across all areas of government,” she said.

Modelling by the Sydney Brain and Mind Institute published in May predicted a 25 per cent increase in suicides owing to COVID-19.

Numbers to call for support: Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636.

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