opinion

The quiet hypocrisy of Scott Morrison's 'towards zero suicide' goal.

The following deals with suicide. If you are struggling, 24-hour crisis support is available via Lifeline. Please call 13 11 14.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Government are “working towards a zero suicide goal”. Zero. None.

“I am committed to taking all necessary action to tackle this issue, ensuring Australian families, communities and those facing challenges get the support they need,” he said in a statement earlier this month.

“I am particularly focused on continuing our strong support for those most at risk, including our veterans, Indigenous Australians and young people.”

Access to mental health services is “a priority” for the Government, Morrison said. He’s even appointed National Mental Health Commission CEO, Christine Morgan, as the new “National Suicide Prevention Adviser”.

Which is great.

At least, it would be, if it wasn’t so drenched in hypocrisy.

‘Towards zero suicide’ is a well-intentioned mental health initiative, wrapped in an embarrassingly reductive, corporate-sounding slogan. There’s no time-frame for this goal. No clear roadmap for how it’s going to be achieved. Christine Morgan’s appointment seems to be the first step; that, and a notable $5 billion of cash spent on mental health services each year.

“This is a big job,” Morrison said in a social media video. “A curse on our country. But I’m sure, working together, we can break it.”

My goodness, we wish it was that simple. Who wouldn’t love to think of a future in which there aren’t more than 3000 Australians each year feeling so hopeless that they chose to end their own lives?

But the suggestion that we can solve this issue, once and for all, grossly underestimates the complexity of suicide and its causes, and twists it into some sort of bizarre Government KPI. It’s the “quick, do something” of politicians faced with an overwhelming problem and three years in which to try to tackle it.

But even regardless of the ill-informed catchphrase, it’s always going to be hard to believe that this particular Government considers suicide prevention to be a priority. For them to make that claim conveniently ignores the fact that they have, and are considering, policies that have the potential to adversely impact the mental health of thousands.

Including those on welfare.

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The Government’s automated Centrelink debt recovery service, for example, has been directly linked to multiple suicides.

Since the ‘robodebt’ software was left in charge of identifying outstanding debts in 2016, hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients have been sent letters (some mistakenly) ordering them to settle up. Some were given less than a week to pay, and threatened with having their wages docked and their assets seized. Many of most vulnerable were left staring down the barrel of homelessness, and several families claimed it contributed to a loved one taking their own life.

And yet it’s still in place.

Meanwhile, back in May reports emerged from the Government’s offshore immigration detention centre on Manus Island that suicide attempts and self-harm among detainees had reached “crisis point” in the week after the Federal election. Refugee advocate Ian Rintoul told the ABC on May 29 that he was aware of as many as 23 incidents, including at least six in one 24-hour period.

Behrouz Boochani, an author and UNSW Associate Professor detained on Manus, wrote for The Guardian last month that he had never seen the refugees on the island so depressed. “Freedom is the only thing that can reassure us of life, only freedom,” he said. “I can say this with certainty: If the government insists on continuing its policy of indefinite detention many human beings will die here.”

And back on the mainland, the Government is currently heavily flirting with the idea of a religious freedoms bill. In the wake of the Israel Folau saga, in which the footballer raised millions from supporters after being sacked Rugby Australia for publicly condemning gay people to hell, there are valid fears that the laws could shield people who choose to spout discriminatory, homophobic rhetoric under the guise of religion.

As Nicolas Parkhill, CEO of LGBTQ health organisation ACON, said in a statement to Mamamia, “Young LGBTI people five times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population, and transgender people nearly eleven times more likely – figures which reflect their experiences of homophobic and transphobic discrimination, violence, abuse, and social isolation.”

While Parkhill commended the Prime Minister for taking a stand on suicide prevention and mental health, his concerns are simple.

“We need legislation and investment that promotes an inclusive Australian culture, that values the contribution of diverse communities, and importantly, that does not work against the mental health needs of LGBTQ Australians,” he said.

“With a goal of zero suicides in Australia, we strongly urge the Prime Minister to consider the impact that any proposed religious discrimination laws will have on the lives of people, including those from LGBTQ communities, who are already vulnerable.”

After all, while Prime Minister and his colleagues may genuinely want to make meaningful change to suicide rates in this country, that can’t be selective. Or is ‘towards zero’ close enough?

Lifeline: 13 11 14

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