Robodebt claims the life of a 19-year-old mum

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Centrelink's robodebt system has been responsible for suicides and hardships around the country (Image by Dan Jensen)

Centrelink's robodebt scandal has been claiming the lives of people struggling with debt, yet our Government remains inactive on the issue, writes Gerry Georgatos.

A ROBODEBT contributed to the death by suicide of a 19 year-old-mother. Stressors and suicide are commonly linked. Society is defined by the sum of its relationships, many of which are so classist, racist, sexist, ableist and ageist that we devastate people.

Australia is heading towards 3,000 suicides, including a record number of suicides of First Nations people — 110 suicides so far this year. At this rate, the suicide toll at the end of the year could, for the first time, pass 200 losses.

In supporting many of the families who have lost children and older loved ones, sadly, I know that the majority of those lost were most certainly preventable and not inevitable.

It breaks my heart to know that a robodebt tipped a young mother to suicide. It is harrowing and an indictment of our nation, as a society, of our Government.

I will not identify the community or the region as there is relentless, unimaginable grief and I do not want to compound their distress with them being inundated. The family is devastated and angry.

A 19-year-old single mother experiencing an arc of issues living below the poverty line, alone with a baby and without the support of the biological father, struggling day-to-day then receives a robodebt around $9,000. This is not how it should be.

She sought assistance from the community shire office and was told they could not help. She visited the office a number of times, distressed about the unaffordable debt and unsure how she could owe this amount. This is not how it should be.

Along with an accumulation of stressors and isolation, the robodebt indisputably contributed to her negative self, to the point where it all became too much, tipping her.

It's my view that Centrelink should denounce and reject robodebts. Those who are responsible, be it the Government as a whole, are morally culpable. Where is the person-to-person contact? Unaffordable debt is a sudden and dramatic hit for people living poverty, especially a young mum. There should always be sensitive, civil people to first approach and not barbaric ruthlessness. Our Government needs to be better than this. But it isn't.

This young mum is gone forever. The baby is without a mother, now being cared for by an aunty.

Our Government and the Commonwealth have to own that they contribute to the suicide toll. They are not there for the most vulnerable. There is little authentic suicide prevention, reductive supports or negligible outreach.

There was a young gentleman in his early 20s, in another community, almost the continent apart from the 19-year-old mother, who had to do the Community Development Program for his welfare payment — in effect, sweeping dirt. Meaningless activity, meander and ambling, day after day, his spirit finally embered until he took his life in a shed near the dirt site he swept every day. Is this how we are to treat people?

Australians need to understand the harrowing details, the issues and grim realities because. without the truth, with censorship by omission, our governments will not be galvanised into reforming dangerous practices nor in investing in the supports that are long overdue.

The suicide crisis is getting worse and I've just described two preventable losses from 110 where, in fact, our governments themselves could have prevented them. The majority of the 110-plus suicides of First Nations peoples were preventable.

The suicide toll of First Nations people can be reduced – in fact, to a quarter – and to significantly less, the Australian suicide rate if we focus on poverty as the overarching suicidality narrative. I have written hundreds of articles on suicide prevention, but this Government is flailing commitments and failing to deliver suicide prevention. In my view, they are contributing reprehensibly to an increasing suicide toll. They are not alone, but they are the most culpable.

There's a lot of posturing on suicide prevention, a lot of commitments, but a lot of nothing done.

It is my certain belief that after a decade of every ensuing year showing an increasing suicide toll, we can, for the first time in a long while, reduce the suicide toll to less than the preceding year and that would be inspiring. But we aren't taking this step into the right direction.

We can halve the suicide toll for all Australians if we focus on socioeconomic stressors as a major cause. I remind that close to 100 per cent of First Nations suicides are of people who lived below the poverty line, with the above the poverty line rate dramatically less in comparison to the overall Australian suicide rate. I remind that the majority of Australia’s 3,000 suicides are of people within or proximal to poverty or with socioeconomic disadvantages.

We need to speak out and leave no-one behind. We need to remind ourselves that the majority are not born into privilege. All of us, without exception, can be born into the best or worst of ourselves. If we want to be decent human beings – if we really believe in the “fair go” – then we must be there for those whose journey needs us.

Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher and national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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