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Poverty, mental health and Centrelink

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For months, InDaily has been contacted by people across the country, sharing their stories of trying to navigate and live within the welfare system.

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Even with the coronavirus supplement boosting the JobSeeker payment rate from $550 a fortnight, or $40 a day, to $1200 a fortnight for six months, we’ve been flooded with pleas from despondent Australians struggling to understand bureaucratic language and systems or trying to contact Centrelink to get clear information.

We’ve heard how people have become emotionally drained, how they’ve grown fearful and unsure how they’ll manage when coronavirus supplements stop, or angry and confused about why their payments weren’t raised along with others.

They have told us the financial and psychological impact of a Centrelink debt, of the grinding daily endurance contest of living in poverty, and the stress of feeling worthless and alone. See Your views: voices from the Centrelink welfare system

Organisations and groups such as the Anti-Poverty Network, the Unemployed Workers Union, Centrelink and Other Info and the Australian Council of Social Services provide assistance to those struggling to navigate what is often termed a “broken system”.

There are also mental health services such as LifeLine, Beyond Blue, SkyLight and R U OK? which are there for people in crisis.

The Department of Social Services estimated there were 1.61 million Australians on Jobseeker and Youth Allowance payments as of June 30, more than double the 728,000 people on the equivalent payment in December.

The influx of new recipients followed the closure of thousands of businesses as a result of coronavirus restrictions.

It coincided with a jump in calls to mental health charity Lifeline, which said it had experienced a 25 per cent increase in its number of calls as of June 30.

A spokesperson for the national call centre told InDaily while financial stress, relationship breakdowns and isolation were three of the major concern for callers, the organisation did not keep data relating to welfare stress.

South Australian community mental health organisation Skylight CEO Paul Creedon told InDaily the service’s lived experience telephone support service had about a 20 per cent increase in the number calls in the last several months.

“This represents both more callers and also callers calling more often because they could not get their needs met in other services because of demand or satisfaction issues,” he said.

While the organisation did not track welfare-specific concerns, Creedon said he was “yet to come across a single person who talks about their experience with Centrelink as being pleasurable or effective”.

“The vast majority of people, when they talk about Centrelink, talk about it from a place of distress,” he said.

“They talk about it as a system that is hard to manage, that is disrespectful, that’s uncaring, that makes it difficult for them to maintain their own personal integrity as a human being – that seems to be the common experience.

“Some may in fact argue the Centrelink system is set up to be just that, to discourage people from applying or remaining on Centrelink’s books.

Certainly, there are many people who would report that their interactions with Centrelink are traumatic, as evidenced by the reports around robo-debt and the anecdotal reports of suicide around this.

Last year, a Senate inquiry into the robo-debt scheme – later ruled unlawful in the Federal Court – took evidence about the impact on people who were sent Centrelink debt notices.

The mothers of two men who took their lives after receiving debt statements have submitted letters to a Senate inquiry criticising the government’s refusal to accept the automated system may have contributed to their sons’ deaths.

The women were responding to a comment made by Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell that assertions people had died because of robo-debts were “not correct”.

While the final report into the inquiry has been set for December 2, the committee last week tabled an interim report with a number of recommendations into Centrelink’s income compliance program.

These included that an independent review begins immediately into the policy, design, administration and impact of the Government program.

The report also found the program had an “overwhelming and devastating impact on many people’s emotional and financial wellbeing,” had a “ruinous impact” on mental health and exacerbated stress and anxiety by pushing vulnerable people further into poverty.

A spokesperson told InDaily “the Government will await the final report” before responding to the recommendations.

Creedon said, for many struggling with financial trauma, dealing with Centrelink further aggravated poor mental health.

“Circumstances where people are already in a place of pain and disadvantage because they’ve lost their employment, or whatever, and then going through the system with Centrelink, most people I think would understand that that’s a traumatic experience. And trauma is at the root of mental illnesses,” Creedon said.

“Anyone who is in contact with Centrelink, is already experiencing negative social determinants: They are already the people who have unstable housing, they are the people who have poverty, who have chronic illnesses and medical conditions.

“Plus, the trauma of something like Centrelink can lead to a mental illness or an exacerbation of a mental illness. So, the system of Centrelink is one that doesn’t actually relieve distress, for many people it actually increases distress.”

Life on the outer

Just before Christmas last year, Rita McDonald had a manic episode and a mental health triage team came to her house to assess if she needed to be admitted to hospital.

“Because I had my son and my daughter-in-law with me and my partner with me, and they were going to stay with me, I didn’t need to be admitted,” McDonald said.

“I wasn’t really noticing but apparently, during the day, I’d become quite manic. I couldn’t stop talking and I was fidgeting. I didn’t notice this and I kept bursting into tears.

“My daughter-in-law asked if I was okay and I said I didn’t know. I was feeling a bit strange. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t want to tell them I was suicidal. But they rang Lyell McEwin (Hospital) and said: ‘Mum is in a bad state. She seems to be having some sort of psychosis or something.’ And that’s when the triage team came to the house.’

Eight months earlier in 2019, McDonald had gone on JobSeeker (previously known as Newstart) after losing her job at an aged-care facility.

Her income plummeted to the equivalent of $40-a-day, which had hardly budged in real terms in 25 years.

McDonald said that after paying rent, she was left without much cash to buy food or medicine, and began relying on her family for meals.

“Constantly, constantly, every day you’re in survival mode … every day you’re like, am I going to survive today? Am I going to eat today?” she said.

“You have to say: ‘What am I going to pay this week?’ So, you don’t eat every day or take all of your medications. I was constantly having to go to Anglicare and relying on my children to feed me. I was crying every day. Even the food I was eating was crap food, so my physical health deteriorated – it all built up.

“And then it was Christmas and I thought: ‘I haven’t got money to get the grandkids presents.’ And so I didn’t go see them for Christmas. I missed my whole family Christmas because I was so embarrassed and humiliated that I’d be the only one without presents.

It dehumanises you. It made me feel less than human, less than worthy and a burden. I’ve got medication now, so I don’t cry anymore.

“But the feelings are still there.”

“Things are a lot better money wise now, but the anxiety is still there because we don’t know when this is going to end.”

A Lifeline volunteer in Adelaide. Photo: Angela Skujins/InDaily

For Sarah, her mental health began to decline after she was forced to stop working to care for a family member eight years ago.

She was ineligible for the Carers Pension and, although she was a single parent, was told she needed to apply for unemployment benefits.

In order to receive them, she had to attend appointments with a Jobactive provider and meet the mutual obligations demands.

She told InDaily trying to work with the private agency and Centrelink while caring for a family member and living on the low-income payment slowly wore her down.

She said her doctor gave her a medical exemption, which meant she did not have to meet all of the mutual obligations.

“Even though I was on a medical exemption, I was still having to sometimes go for appointments and still having to do every fortnight calling that I had nothing to report, that I had no income and that my situation and hadn’t changed,” McDonald said.

“And if I didn’t make that phone call before the cut off period my payment got suspended. And I can’t even tell you how many times my payment got suspended in that first 12 months.

“I thought I was defective. I thought there was something wrong with me. How the hell can I not just get Centrelink right when I’ve got a medical exemption?”

Like McDonald, Sarah said was often hungry.

“It progressively made me lose hope. You just feel like the light of the end of the tunnel has just gone at some point. And you think, ‘I can’t really see my way out of this.’ The debt is piling up and you’re skipping meals,” she said.

“It definitely fucks with your mental health when you’re hungry all of the time.

“Walking past restaurants that I’d think nothing about dropping $150 in when I was working and smelling food that I couldn’t afford to eat. That is depressing.”

She stopped wanting to socialise.

“It’s also really isolating, in an odd way that I never expected. It’s given me a social anxiety,” Sarah said.

“I hate meeting new people now because what is the first question you ever ask anyone? ‘What do you do?’ I have to be like: ‘I’m unemployed. I’ve been unemployed for like eight years now. And they just look at you like you’re a total loser.’

“That I just never expected, and so I’m very much in my own bubble. And all of those middle-class friends you had just fall away.

“I’ve kept hold of my two closest friend who I’ve had forever but your work college friends, people who would invite you out for drinks every now and then, those invitations just drop away and slowly you just become completely isolated because you just can’t afford to do stuff.

“You can’t afford to pay for yourself to do things. I don’t want to be shouted everywhere I go just for the sake of having company.

There’s so much shame associated with being poor.

Digital divide

SA Council of Social Services CEO Ross Womersley said a number of contributing factors within the Centrelink system exacerbate mental health issues, including the push to digitise.

He said in the context of robo-debt, the move to automation had increased client stress.

“A number of people are struggling to navigate the system. Over the last decade Centrelink has closed down many of its public facing offices and so there aren’t humans to talk directly about the challenges that they’re facing and resolve the issues that they can’t when they’re trying to resolve the issues when online,” he said.

“We know that in the last couple of years there has been a lot of focus on robo-debt and people assume – probably rightly in the context of robo-debt – that the system is not necessarily there to forgive them and support them.

“The system is there to persecute them, in a strange way, if they make a mistake. And that just adds extra tension to their lives in a way that people just can’t understand.”

He said living with the uncertainty of the JobSeeker payment rate – with the Government yet to announce what the final rate will be after the coronavirus boost is wound back – was another issue playing on people’s minds.

The Government plans to reduce the pandemic-boosted JobSeeker payment from $1200 a fortnight to $815 until the end of the year, but no decision has yet been announced on what the final fortnightly amount will be.

The short-term boosted unemployment payment, prompted by the pandemic’s economic fallout, followed years of campaigning by the Anti-Poverty Network and ACOSS for a permanent increase to the rate, with the Anti-Poverty Network writing a letter to the Federal Government in 2017 highlighting the impacts of the low payments on Australians physical and mental wellbeing.

“People who were unemployed, particularly those who were longterm unemployed prior to the COVID supplement allowance being put in place, experienced the major increases,” Womeresely said.

“They were finally in a position where they could look after their kids a bit better, pay for the food they needed, pay some of their essential bills and there was an experience where, for a moment, people felt a bit liberated that they had enough in their pockets to get by.

“The continuing anxiety of the value of that payment is really problematic for those people though because they don’t know how to plan for their futures, because there is simply no certainty.”

SACOSS believes that without a systemic welfare system overhaul, more Australians risk being pushed to their limit.

“When people lose a sense of hopefulness and purpose, then life becomes much less meaningful and in the most tragic of circumstances becomes worthless – and it’s in those contexts that people might take their lives,” Womersley said.

“It’s terrible that we should be implementing a system that creates those kinds of pressures on people and thus motivates those reactions.”

InDaily asked Services Australia if it was concerned that Centrelink systems might be having an impact on clients’  mental health and was told “the factors that contribute to someone taking their own life can be very complex”.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said most people who died by suicide had underlying risk factors and referred InDaily to Mindframe’s guidelines for reporting on mental health.

“Any media reporting and public commentary should carefully consider the duty to be responsible, balanced and not make unfounded conclusions that risk causing more harm for vulnerable people,” he told InDaily.

“We don’t ever want people to feel they’re in a situation of helplessness. Support and help is always available from us and a wide range of government and community services.

“We strongly encourage anyone who is experiencing mental health issues to contact Services Australia on your usual payment line and ask to speak to a social worker.

 Our face to face and telephone staff are trained to refer customers experiencing crisis to a social worker. Our professionally trained social workers offer support and assistance including information, referrals, short term counselling and crisis support for people with multiple and complex needs.”

InDaily contacted Families and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston twice to ask about people’s concerns regarding mental health and Centrelink.

Her office referred InDaily to Services Australia’s response.

Skylight’s COVID-19 Mental Health Peer Support Line is available every day between 5-11pm. Call 1800 02 2020 or access the web chat by following this link.

If this article raised issues for you, LifeLine is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dial 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace are other national organisations offering comprehensive mental health support.

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