'Sorry, we can't help you today': Unspoken truth about income
SUICIDAL thoughts often come after humiliation, then a feeling of entrapment, then a desire for "liberation".
I was standing inside a tacky "instant cash loan" place in main street, Dandenong, I had just applied for a $200 loan.
"Sorry love, we can't help you today," the Eastern European lady at the loan shop I'll call CASH NOW EXCITING WOW said.
I was broke and living on a friend's couch. I went to three other "instant cash loan" places who said no to giving me a loan that day. Plus I'd been into Centrelink and asked for a cash advance - I got rejected for that too.
I also had a bad back and was losing my battle with the insurance company. I'd just borrowed money from a friend earlier that day - she needed it by the next morning for her daughter's school excursion. CASH NOW EXCITING WOW's final rejection meant I realised I couldn't repay her by that night like I promised.
Twelve months earlier I had a well-paying, high-status job; I'd been on TV, the radio, I wrote for magazines - everyone took my call when I was a journalist - most people wanted to be my friend.
After CASH NOW's rejection I felt disconnected, life seemed pointless; broken beyond repair. I walked for hours plotting ways to die. I eventually followed one street all the way to Dandenong Hospital's emergency room and told them I wanted to kill myself.
It wasn't the first time I'd been suicidal. But it was the first time that financial despair had driven me to it.
And the experience turned out to be illuminating in more ways than one - years later, I would start reading and find what is rarely talked about: The link between being on a lower-income and suicide.
THE LINK BETWEEN OCCUPATION, CASH AND FEELING SUICIDAL
Not that long ago terms like "affluenza" and "cashed-up bogans" were freely thrown around. Yes we know that "money doesn't make you happy", but being dirt poor can drive you to despair - male suicide in Australia was at the highest in the 1930s Great Depression.
Many studies show the link between unemployment and suicide: unemployed men suicide about 4.62 times the rate of employed men in Australia according the latest research by the University of Melbourne.
The latest available ABS figures show Australia's annual suicide rate is 12 per 100,000 - the highest in 10 years. We know men are more at risk, so too LGBTI people and the indigenous. But since 2002, ABS data hasn't recorded occupation or income (currently it looks only at age, race, gender) of those who have taken their own life - when it did it showed the unemployed, tradies and labourers were the ones most likely to suicide.
Contemporary figures showing the link between income, class and suicide proved hard to find. But the suicide rate for trades people is 21 per 100,000 and for labourers it's an astonishing 34 per 100,000 (nearly triple the national average).
Compare that to the suicide rates of male managers of 7 suicides per 100,000, and middle-class professionals of 13 per 100,000.
There are a few aberrations including veterinarians and those working in the medical profession, who have high suicide rates, but otherwise the trend appears relatively clear.
LOSS OF HOPE AND PURPOSE
"The main drivers of suicide are disconnection, and a loss of hope and purpose," Alan Woodward Director of Lifeline Australia told news.com.au.
"We know financial struggles and personal indebtedness is a factor that can lead people to feel suicidal ... if you are unemployed there is a strong chance your social network will reduce and you may experience some loss of a sense of contributing to the community."
"Some occupations have some features, less control of the nature of their work, less fulfilment, job satisfaction, possibility to exposure to unsafe areas.
And of course - most of those jobs are male-dominated.
"Traditional masculine behaviour and attitudes have been found to relate to reduced and delayed help-seeking for mental health problems," he said.
When I reflect back on the day my financial crisis led to suicidal ideation, I do think about the lack of meaning in my life right then. I had tried to do everything right: I had been studying law, I'd spent most of my life climbing the socio-economic ladder just as my parents had lifted themselves out of their parents' poverty. There I was - begging for money.
But it wasn't just disappointment - it was something else.
My Dad is on a disability support pension after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder 10 years ago. He has attempted suicide a few times. His Dad had schizophrenia and suicided. My Dad's brother also took his own life, so did my cousin.
The easy conclusion: It's simply a matter of genetics.
Yet, my Dad's family all grew up in poverty; the other kids teased them because they couldn't afford socks or underwear.
I also remember, for instance, my Mum telling me that when she first met Dad (when he was in his early 20s) and they went to meet her sister's boyfriend, he was so ashamed is to go because my Aunt's boyfriend worked in a bank. He sat there for the entire coffee session in total silence.
Dad, who left school at 13 an illiterate, was embarrassed by his own manner, his way of speech and that people used words he didn't understand.
It's the similar feeling I think when I was volunteering aged 23 at a community radio station working part-time as a telemarketer - surrounded by 19-year-olds who already had part-time jobs in the industry. It's that feeling that men in particular - who are raised to be the best and the strongest - can feel crushed by.
SO WHY DON'T WE TALK ABOUT THIS DURING MENTAL HEALTH WEEK?
Conclusions are not easy to form here; not least of all because the ABS does not publish these figures, so we don't know which income group the rise of suicides is coming from.
What is clear is that the examination of socio-economic issues are excluded from suicide campaigns, most of our major mental health groups don't focus on them, they don't utter a whisper in our annual Mental Health Week and are conspicuously absent from our National Suicide Prevention Strategy.
Stephen Platt, Professor of Health Policy Research in the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, has argued nearly all national suicide prevention strategies internationally (with the exception, he says, of New Zealand) do not have specific targets to reduce the unequal distribution of suicide risk by income-level.
REACHING OUT TO YOUR MATES IN CONSTRUCTION
Since 2008, a specialist charity has been working within the construction industry to train workers on how to identify and then help their co-workers who may be feeling suicidal.
Mates in Construction is run by Jorgen Gullestrup, a former construction worker who suffered chronic depression in his early career.
"We have a number of things inherent in the industry that make it a risk for suicide. 98 per cent of our workers are men - who are far more likely to suicide - and we have lots of lower-skilled workers too, who have higher rates of suicides. We also work in an industry where we have very low job security, people work six day weeks and very long hours of work. Then that can be followed by a period of no shifts all," Gullestrup told news.com.au.
"We got a report done a few years ago (about suicide in the construction industry) and it showed that our rate of suicide was higher than most other industries, and young men were particularly at risk" he explained.
"But also what we discovered is that nearly all the people who had suicided had shown signs and about half had actually communicated their intention within 12 months of going ahead with it - but few sought any help."
So Mates in Construction - funded by state and federal governments - has case management workers and a 24 hour advice line. They also now have a three-tiered training system for construction workers - including a final tier that allows a worker to actively assist someone who is feeling depressed or suicidal at work.
"We have trained 120,000 workers and we have 10,000 volunteers," says Gullestrup. "We know for a fact many lives have been saved and the industry suicide rates have dropped"
And so what has this taught him about suicide?
"To overcome suicide is to connect with someone, listen to them, and reach out to them. Then it's about discovering or rediscovering your usefulness, so you feel like you have a purpose and you feel needed."
A REASON FOR HOPE
Back at Dandenong hospital the day I was completely broke and suicidal, I ended up speaking with a great psychiatric nurse, who gave me a very good counselling session, an antipsychotic and a bed for the night.
While it didn't solve my problem, it did help me deal with these issues with a clearer head the next day.
And while mental health is clearly not just all about the individual, I did need to get my head together initially to work out how to solve my problem.
I eventually did pain management therapy and my injury healed. After that I volunteered at a community legal centre and through that I got a job. I finished my law degree. I wrote a book. I travelled Asia.
I'm extremely grateful for the help and cherish the fact I have gone to live another seven fulfilling years.
And of course - talking to someone can help too:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Mensline: 1300 78 99 78
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Mates in Construction: 1300 642 111
Luke Williams is a journalist and author.