Suicide is preventable. Yet it kills twice as many people in Australia as traffic accidents. Every three and a half hours, we lose an Australian to suicide and the overwhelming majority are men. As much as we hate to admit it, these statistics are a direct reflection of our societal personality because they are within our power to change.
While the stats do make the situation seem bleak, we are happy to report they are improving. And that improvement is being witnessed in the industry with the highest rate of suicide: construction.
Since 2007, Mates in Construction has been working tirelessly to address the problem of suicide and create a supportive infrastructure for workers in the industry. According to MIC’s CEO, Jorgen Gullestrup, we are finally starting to see scientifically backed improvement. It is difficult to get a precise picture on suicide as the coroners have a few years to work out cause of death and it can be complicated. So suicide data is always two or three years behind and potentially imprecise. While Mates in Construction commenced their work to address the industry’s suicide epidemic ten years ago, they’ve only now been able to get a picture of the changes that occurred across the first five years. But that picture is one of hope.
“Suicide rates in the Queensland construction industry have fallen by 8%, while suicide rates generally have actually increased in Queensland. Every person who’s spoken up, asked for help or offered it, has made a difference. This is happening many times over and it is impacting the overall picture in the industry and that is a triumph.”
What makes Mates in Construction different
There are plenty of mental health initiatives out there but Mates in Construction has been designed by blokes from the industry, for blokes from the industry. Jorgen explains:
“We approach the industry as a whole. We work within individual business but we see our mission as encompassing the full industry.”
They also take a ‘bottom up’ approach, engaging in a workforce around mental health and suicide prevention, rather than making it an employer responsibility. While it is important for employers and management to be involved, MIC like to give power and control to the workers as they are the ones who see each other every day and who are most likely to notice when someone is having problems.
Help that’s tailored to the way men think
The construction industry, and the mining industry are overwhelmingly male. While women are slowly getting more involved, it’s still around 90%+ male in both industries. This being the case, MIC’s program has been designed to work with the male brain.
Jorgen lightheartedly explained the masculine psyche from his perspective:
“I’ll come home from work and my wife will start telling me about problems with our kids in school and so on. I’ve got about ten or fifteen minutes worth of patience for that, and once that’s up I’ll tell her exactly how to fix it. And she’s not grateful at all. And I’ll never understand this because you gave me a problem and I fixed it.”
While it’s hard to make sweeping generalisations about genders and be accurate, it is basically true that men like to problem-solve and fix broken things. Particularly the hands-on practically minded blokes who tend to work in construction.
“So for men, if you want us to engage, you need to give us something practical to fix. If someone says let’s talk about mental health, it feels a little bit like taking your shoes off and sitting around in a circle and using the F word. And we don’t talk about Feelings.”
So Jorgen’s approach is to avoid the F word altogether and frame it as a practical problem: we’re losing too many mates to suicide and we need to fix this.
The other unique aspect of the male brain that must be contended with is the stubborn resistance to asking for help.
“It’s just not part of what we do, and there are some people who suggest it’s even sort of genetic, that help seeking is not, evolutionarily advantageous. Men who sought help, would not survive well in a hunting gathering society. So asking for help is genetically difficult.”
Initiatives aimed at getting men to ask for help play into their weak hand and are, therefore, primed for failure. Instead, MIC focus on what men are good at: fixing problems and offering help. They teach construction workers what it looks like when a mate is in crisis and how to offer help. Because offering assistance is a lot easier for men than seeking it. And having help offered to you is socially acceptable. They do it at work every day, going to each other’s aid with practical things like lifting awkward loads. Moving this ethos into the mental health arena is a simpler step than asking men to reprogram centuries of evolutionary genetic data.
The simple yet effective structure
When invited into a business, MIC starts with general awareness training for everybody on site, from senior management to apprentices. Preferably all together.
The next step is signing up volunteers. The employer allows MIC to train those people, during their paid work time. This four-hour training session is enough to make them a ‘connector’. They’re given a green sticker to put on their hardhat to signify they are someone you can approach if you’re having a problem and they’ll know what to do next.
“We’re aiming to get one in 20 of the workers on site trained with a green sticker, so there’s always a connector at your own level. Because the project manager is not likely to go to one of the apprentices and say ‘my marriage is falling apart, I need a bit of a hand’. By the same token, an apprentice won’t feel comfortable telling the project manager if they’re struggling with a drug problem.”
The next level up from connectors are like First Aid reps but for mental health. They’re called ‘Assist Workers’ and are trained, if somebody is acutely suicidal, to make sure they’re safe.
“If people don’t get the help in the acute moment of crisis, they often will not make it to the professional services. So we aim to offer that First Aid style intervention.”
People are then supported by a network of field officers and case managers. MIC has about 10,000 volunteers across the industry at the moment and a call centre that’s manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Once someone has been identified as needing assistance, they are given a case manager who has all sorts of connections to help them; from counselling services to divorce lawyers. The case managers have all worked in construction or related fields, making them relatable. In addition to connecting people with the services they need, case managers walk with them through the process, offering support and making changes to the plan where necessary. Having a case manager is a bit like having a trainer in your corner to keep you on track and give you perspective if things don’t go as planned. Back in the workplace, the local connectors continue to offer support and a friendly listening ear.
This is a remarkable structure with a simple yet effective design offering multi-layered support and side-stepping the awkwardness and social stigma of asking for help. It encourages a workplace environment in which people pay attention to each other and offer support. The ideal eventual outcome is for initiatives like this to break down the outdated genetic coding that holds men silent when they’re in need.
Branching out into other industries
Mates In Mining kicked off in December 2016. Jorgen says they’re still finding their feet.
“We are predominantly working in coal mining at this stage, but the vision is for Mates In Mining to cover mine workers and resources generally. So far we have received a grant from the New South Wales Coal Services Trust to get it off the ground, and then do the feasibility study. Hopefully, over the next year or so we get a more ongoing viable business model happening for mining.”
Over the next 12 months, Jorgen hopes MIM will become a viable, vibrant organisation. He is looking at launching Mates in Energy and Mates in Logistics—as two different concepts—working with the industries and finding appropriate people within them to take leadership. The important thing when launching in new industries is to establish them so they are owned and run by people from those industries; because they understand the specific pressures of the work environment and the personalities drawn to it.
“We don’t really want to take over the world, we just want to save a few lives. The most important thing for people to remember is to look out for your mates. And you don’t have to be part of Mates in Construction to do that.”
Mates in Construction have a 24/7 hotline for anyone who is dealing with hardship or concerned about a coworker: 1300 MIC 111 (1300 642 111)
If you’d like to get MIC on your site, click here.
Lifeline also has a 24/7 hotline for support: 13 11 14
And for mental health advice, you can also contact Beyond Blue 24/7 via phone: 1300 22 4636 or, if it’s easier for you, they have a web chat service on their website. However, this is only available between the hours of 3pm and midnight.