Amid a ‘relentless barrage’ of crises, middle-aged men fall through the cracks

    Suspected suicides have risen by 8 per cent in early data from NSW and Victoria last year, in what mental health experts have described as evidence of Australians’ distress following years of successive crises: fires, the pandemic and soaring inflation brought on by global unrest.

    Fury directed towards Health Minister Mark Butler over his decision to halve the number of annual Medicare-funded psychologist appointments from 20 to 10 has cooled since December, but the mental health sector is now seeking proof of his dedication to reform ahead of a roundtable the government has convened for Monday.

    Real-time suspected suicide data, which is reported by the Coroners Court of Victoria and NSW Health, confirmed numbers were rising in both states last year after remaining relatively steady throughout the pandemic.

    The sharpest increases were in male suicides and the 45 to 64-year-old age bracket. Men’s mental health researcher Zac Seidler said the biggest struggles for middle-aged men were social connection, which COVID had challenged, as well as financial security and addictions such as gambling and alcohol.

    Clinical psychologist Zac Seidler said middle-aged men were struggling but often forgotten in mental health conversations.

    “They’re fathers, mostly, and the intergenerational impact on their partners and their children cannot be underestimated, especially if they are the financial provider,” he said.

    Nieves Murray, chief executive of peak body Suicide Prevention Australia, said cost of living worries and mortgage distress on top of natural disasters and the pandemic had created a “relentless barrage over the last three years”.

    “Without question, we’re seeing levels of distress higher than we’ve seen in this country. History tells us it’s usually two to three years after a disaster we see a spike in suicide trends – and we’re seeing that now,” she said.

    “Victoria has had the highest rate of suicide in the last 12 months, and we’re seeing an 8 per cent increase in NSW comparative to last year. We can’t talk about this any more. We actually need to do something. We’ve been calling on government to do something for many months now.”

    There were 686 suspected suicide deaths reported in Victoria between January 1 and November 30 2022, compared with 638 for the same period in 2021, 637 in 2020, and 634 in 2019.

    In NSW, there were 810 suspected deaths by suicide reported between January 1 and October 31 2022, compared with 749 during the same period in 2021, 735 in 2020, and 759 in 2019.

    At the same time, Lifeline’s average daily call volume has increased – from 2533 calls each day in 2019 to 2867 in 2020, 3095 in 2021 and a combined 3,606 average daily contacts in 2022 when it introduced an additional text service.

    Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said suicide data needed to be interpreted carefully because the longer-term trends were most important. “But we are starting to see some shifts,” she said.

    “We have known for a long time that the compounding effects of bushfires, natural disasters, pandemic and now the economic strain on households and individuals are the perfect ingredients for elevated distress, and a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that leads to suicide risk.”

    Harman said the uproar over the government’s call to cut psychology sessions was an important debate. “But I don’t think it’s the right question right now. I think it’s: how do we redesign the system to ensure people access the volume of sessions and the type of support they need.“

    She stressed that those in need can still get help. “The system might be broken, but it’s important people know that support is available and it works so there is hope.”

    Mental health organisations are pushing for broad reforms to what they describe as a piecemeal system that has increased funding to individual organisations but created gaping holes in other areas.

    Mental Health Australia chair Matt Berriman said he was alarmed by the rising numbers, which showed what had been done to date was clearly not working. “We need a reform package that caters for all Australians,” he said.

    “The government needs to make this a focus and we hope that Minister Butler, the prime minister and his cabinet have a great reform package across multiple ministerial responsibilities to announce soon … We can’t keep waiting as the country continues to get sicker.”

    If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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