For the past six months, Scarlett has noticed that her body has started to shiver excessively.
It’s a response that she associates with withdrawal from antidepressants – but this time it didn’t.
Instead, the tremors coincided with a rising cost of living as she and a housemate had to tighten up their already tight budget.
“I have no way of supporting myself financially and I don’t know what to do,” Scarlett said.
“Then that’s where I get to and then the coil starts again.”
The rising costs of electricity and gas have been challenging, Scarlett says, but even the cost of groceries have had an impact.
“We can’t buy fresh groceries, and we haven’t been able to for a long time actually.
“But now even meat. We usually buy like chicken and sausages and things that you try and that last and keep going up.”
Scarlett says a diagnosis of dysthymia — a milder but longer-term form of depression also known as persistent depressive disorder — weakens her enough to put her off work, but does not qualify her for a disability allowance through Centrelink.
Instead, she is required to work with the Employment Service and apply for 12 jobs per month – two tasks she finds motivating.
The cost of living is now the biggest mental health concern
A survey by Suicide Prevention Australia found that 40 per cent of Australians reported cost-of-living pressures and personal debt causing severe distress compared to this time last year.
A YouGov survey of 1,024 adults conducted in August of this year also found that front-line services ranked it as the greatest risk for suicide rates.
Nevis Murray, chief executive of Suicide Prevention Australia, says the findings coincided with a significant increase in demand for suicide prevention services, with 88 per cent registering an increase in demand over the same 12 months – up from 78 per cent.
Murray says it’s positive to see more Australians seeking help, but warns that more economic disruption could prove difficult for already stretched frontline services without additional funding and adherence to the National Suicide Prevention Act.
“Feeding the family and keeping a roof over our heads are two of the simplest human behaviours,” she says.
“While inflation and interest rates continue to rise, we must be prepared and proactive to prevent mental disorders and suicide rates from doing the same.
Over the next 12 months, Murray says, the cost of living and personal debt were ranked as the biggest risks for increasing suicide rates by both the public (68 percent) and the suicide prevention sector (74 percent).
“This is higher than in previous years and is the first time an economic issue has transcended social issues such as drugs, loneliness and family breakdown,” she says.
Scarlett is just one of many who have watched their mental health deteriorate as the cost of living rose.
She was admitted to the hospital earlier this year with a suicidal idea, but was able to get her back to the care of friends and family.
But at 37, the once-successful design business owner doesn’t know how long she can continue to rely on her parents for help.
“The amount of shame around her is enormous,” she says.
“It’s getting worse, because it has reached a point where I can’t keep asking my parents [for financial help]. They are in the same situation as I am.”
Eager for the homeless, help is available
Financial advisor Deb Schrott of Financial Counselling Australia says that since February when the cost of fuel started to rise, more people were reaching out to their service.
“There may be people who are worried about what’s going to happen, and want to try and plan,” she says, noting that many callers have jobs but work fewer hours than they want to.
“We get calls from people who may have been tracking a good case, but have changed circumstances,” Schrute says. “Maybe they lost their job, someone got sick, broke up or got divorced, or domestic violence, something like that.
These calls add up to the average long-suffering caller.
One of the first things people tend to cut out, she said, is insurance — which she said can become more complicated if someone has an accident or something goes wrong at home — followed by discretionary spending and medication.
This means that some people have become socially reclusive, having to decline social invitations because they have stopped going out.
“People may be trying to cover up their attitudes, but friends may have noticed changes in behavior,” she says.
“We definitely found that there was a lot of shame associated with not being able to put up with such things as well.”
People who reach out to Shroot often look for a place where they can vent their fears and frustrations – but she thinks that’s a good thing.
“Being in financial trouble and needing financial help, it’s not usually an isolated issue,” she says. “It’s usually very complex. And there’s usually a reason that accompanies it.”
“That’s the beauty of financial advisory, in the fact that we’re trying to put all of these pieces together. And we’re trying to help people get to the root of what’s going on.”
Don’t wait until it gets horrible
Respondents in the Australia Suicide Prevention Survey suggested solutions that include subsidizing electricity and gas, increasing Social Security payments above the poverty line, building more social housing, removing passive gears and offering early intervention to people with rent increases.
However, Schrute says the best anyone can do is just talk to someone about their situation — whether it’s a financial advisor, a trusted friend or family member.
She believes that “people feel better, having shared their situation with someone, and there are always options available.”
Additionally, Schrute says there are key changes everyone can make, including budgeting, to ensure essentials are covered.
From there, looking at discretionary spending is the next step.
Schrute advises against increasing debt, whether to cover other debts or necessities such as gas or electricity. Instead, consider researching utility financial hardship programs, she says
Shroot also recommends avoiding buy now and pay later or foregoing services, which can lead to more debt over time.
“You don’t have to wait until you’re in a pitiful position yourself before you get help,” she said.
“We have a lot of people who are probably just worried about what might happen in the future.
“Call us. It’s like you don’t need to wait for your situation to get really bad. You don’t know what to do.”