If more debt means fewer suicides, let's spend big

Losing your job puts you under financial strain, you can feel devalued, your family responsibilities prey on you, everything in your life gets tougher. Photo: Shutterstock

Losing your job puts you under financial strain, you can feel devalued, your family responsibilities prey on you, everything in your life gets tougher. Photo: Shutterstock

As the high tide of the coronavirus crisis recedes over the coming months (touch wood), we know it's going to leave behind a huge steaming pile of unemployment. One of the biggest worries people have is that this will mean a big jump in mental health problems.

The government is chipping in $48 million to help people cope, but some experts - including Headspace founding director Professor Patrick McGorry and former national mental health commissioner Professor Ian Hickie - say that won't be nearly enough.

Based on previous experience - the surge in the suicide rate during the Great Depression, for example - there are certainly grounds for concern. Modelling by Prof Hickie's Mind and Brain Centre at Sydney University suggested the COVID-19 crisis could lead to a 25 per cent jump in the suicide rate if unemployment reached 11 per cent. It's not entirely clear, though, that previous experience is a reliable guide in this case.

There are two types of major depression: endogenous depression, which comes primarily from inside yourself (that is, it has a biological or cognitive cause), and exogenous depression, which comes primarily from your reactions to outside stresses. There is a lot of grey area in between, and a lot of overlap, but the type we're interested in here is exogenous depression.

Clearly, unemployment causes stress. Losing your job puts you under financial strain, you can feel devalued, your family responsibilities prey on you, everything in your life gets tougher, Old Man Trouble moves in. Suicide rates go up. At least, that's the way it usually is during recessions. The COVID crisis, however, is different, and the nature of it - and our response to it - might even offer us some protection from our darkest moods.

The COVID shock is really more like a war than a financial slump.

The COVID shock is really more like a war than a financial slump. The people who've lost their jobs weren't so much laid off as conscripted. There's no question of moral worth involved. The usual nauseating rhetoric of dole bludgers and "leaners" has no point of entry.

Baristas, actors, waiters, flight attendants - they are, if anything, heroes, saints who have been drafted to sacrifice their livelihoods to preserve tottering old boomers like me from choking our lungs out in overburdened ICUs. Thank you, by the way. Honestly.

In Australia, suicide rates went up during the Depression but down during World War II. If we accept that we're really all in this together then we can feel a sense of community, a feeling of camaraderie and mutual support. We have bigger things to worry about than the household budget.

There's still the financial shock of unemployment. Being pushed suddenly below the poverty line is undeniably psychologically taxing. But that's a problem that society knows how to fix; indeed, we're making not such a bad job of fixing it. It's not brain surgery, or even experimental virology. If people don't have enough money, we give those people some money. Doubled JobSeeker payments, new JobKeeper subsidies - they're partial, they're patchy, they need a lot of tuning, but they are unquestionably effective in reducing poverty.

Keeping communities and community groups vibrant in times like this takes work in the same way that keeping the economy afloat takes work - neither of these things happens automatically. Community is real. It offers a protective blanket. Joining a community group is just about the most effective health intervention there is, and conventional economic models are really bad at scoring its benefits. Memo to governments: if you want to lock in national resilience, support local initiatives (making gifts to local netball clubs tax-deductible would be a start). That's not the main game, though.

I'm not against corrective mental health programs - quite the reverse. But if we're looking ahead at a raft of deaths by suicide that could be avoided by simply taking on more national debt, then I look back, again, to the end of the war (and the beginning of the boomers) when debt levels were five times what they are now, and I note that those debt levels have never caused me a moment's anxiety in my life.

If we have more poverty, certainly, we'll have more suicides. If, conversely, we have less poverty, we'll have fewer suicides. And Scott Morrison and every Australian politician and advocate for a decent society has a choice.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits through the pandemic with free resources at: www.ourcommunity.com.au/saveoursector

This story Big debt a small price to pay to stop suicides first appeared on The Canberra Times.