RBA’s Lowe agrees to consult lifelines as distress calls surge amid interest rate rises

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The Reserve Bank of Australia has agreed to consult regularly with suicide prevention groups that warn cost-of-living pressures have led to a surge in distress calls to their services.

Experts also say the federal government must outline how it will fix a mental health system that has become widely unaffordable and inaccessible before the end of the year, after releasing a budget that is light on detail about long-term reform.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe and Suicide Prevention Australia head Nieves Murray met on Friday to discuss the rising levels of hardship in the community.Credit: Peter Braig

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe and Suicide Prevention Australia head Nieves Murray met on Friday to discuss the rising levels of hardship as repeated interest rate rises and high inflation add to mortgage and rent stress.

“I felt reassured when we walked out of the room that the issues of the community’s mental wellbeing and safety were central to the discussions and considerations of the Reserve Bank,” Murray said.

Nearly half of Australians reported increased distress from cost-of-living pressures, according to Suicide Prevention Australia’s March report. Murray said it showed suicide was not solely a mental health issue.

“This all has an impact on people’s suicidal risk,” she said. “And so we’re starting to see the effects of that already. We’re starting to see suicide rates increase, certainly out of NSW and Victoria.”

The Reserve Bank has lifted interest rates from a low of 0.1 per cent last April to 3.85 per cent this month at 11 of its last 12 board meetings to tackle high inflation, which peaked at 7.8 per cent in December and eased to 7 per cent in March.

Following its May meeting, Lowe said the board was willing to keep lifting rates if data showed inflation was taking too long to ease.

But the bank has also been keeping an eye on how households are coping with the combined pressure from inflation and rate rises. On a $600,000 mortgage, the rate rises have increased monthly repayments by almost $1400.

In its recent statement on monetary policy, the Reserve Bank reported that community organisations had raised concerns over a recent and sharp increase in demand for services, including financial aid, foodbank assistance, and acute mental health support.

“They note that there has been a rise in the number of people seeking assistance for the first time, including renters and people with mortgages. There are also reports of an increasing number of people presenting with multiple personal debts,” the report said.

Murray said Lowe had offered to meet regularly and asked to be kept updated with the organisation’s data which tracked what was driving stress in the community.

“The RBA’s role in addressing cost of life, not just cost of living, is more important than ever over the next 12 months after the federal budget this week didn’t include any investment in frontline suicide prevention services,” she said.

Mental health bodies have been calling for stronger government investment since Health Minister Mark Butler controversially cut the number of Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions people could access from 20 to 10 a year in December.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said he would reinstate the 20 sessions in his budget reply speech on Thursday night, committing to the policy the Coalition introduced during COVID-19 lockdowns.

But Butler described it as a “lazy policy”, saying the extra sessions had made waitlists longer and prevented thousands – including those with the most acute needs – from accessing psychology services.

Tuesday’s federal budget did not outline how the federal government would fix the system’s inequities. It did, however, fund 500 new postgraduate psychology places, 500 internships and 2000 supervisor training sessions for psychologists-in-training.

“We’re working with the sector to deal with [making] this system, which is a system I strongly support … more equitable,” Butler said in an interview on Friday. “It’s a serious problem we have in this area and needs a serious response, not a lazy headline.

“What people have increasingly described as the missing middle is a real challenge. But one of the bottlenecks we have in developing these systems is not particularly money, it’s workforce … which is why training more psychologists was a real focus of this budget.”

Mental Health Australia chair Matt Berriman said seeing mental health appear on “losers” lists in reporting about the federal budget had disturbed him.

“I share some of the feelings [the sector] may have of there being another missed opportunity with Tuesday’s budget. Our country faces a critical juncture to get a mental health system the people of this great country deserve,” he said.

But Berriman said he was confident, based on his conversations with the government, that there would be a staged approach to reform by the end of the year.

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

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