By Denise Cullen
Established in 2008, MATES in Construction works to reduce the high level of suicide among Australian construction workers. DENISE CULLEN speaks with key representatives of the organisation, tracing its history, current initiatives and ambitions for expansion into the mining and energy sectors.
Plumber Justin Geange was at his lowest ebb when he attempted suicide in August 2013. He’d been diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder the previous year and, after months of rumours, had just lost his job. Fearing he wouldn’t be able to provide for his wife and two young daughters, Geange figured that, by dying, his family could at least access his life insurance. Two days after his suicide attempt, Geange woke up in hospital. As friends, family and former colleagues rallied around, he realised he’d been given a second chance. It was then he swore to help others through similar crises. Geange currently fulfils that promise by working as a field officer for Queensland’s MATES in Construction. This involves him visiting worksites to provide training and support to workers struggling with suicidal ideation, or those mourning a colleague’s death. “We don’t want [one person’s suicide] to become someone else’s tipping point,” Geange said.
Established in 2008, MATES in Construction works to reduce the high level of suicide among Australian construction workers. Research shows that construction industry workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace accident, with 190 construction workers taking their lives each year. Young construction workers are especially high risk, with a rate of suicide double that of their peers. MATES in Construction aims to tackle these statistics by building workers’ capacity to observe and act when a colleague is in a dark place, said National Chief Executive Officer Chris Lockwood. “Instead of waiting for someone to stick their hand up and say ‘I need help’, it’s about the individuals around them stepping forward,” Lockwood said. “It’s optimistic, it empowers people to be active and to make an impactful change.”
Independent of employers and unions, MATES in Construction was formed in response to a 2006 research report by Griffith University’s Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP). Lockwood said the report identified a key issue facing people in suicidal crisis — support from others. “Ninety-three per cent of men who died by suicide were not connected in with any sort of help,” he said. The AISRAP report said that aspects of the construction industry, including long working hours, deadline pressure and lack of job security, also contributed to its suicide toll. The male-dominated culture was also cited as problematic. “Workers find it difficult to discuss feelings and emotions with colleagues at work, and the nature of the work has made social support more difficult,” Lockwood explained. “‘Pride’ is also identified as an issue, with male workers not wanted to be viewed as less than ‘manly’.”
The toxic effects of bullying in the industry are also implicated. Apprentices, long subject to pranks and hazing, don’t speak up for fear of escalating the situation or losing their apprenticeship, according to research published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources in 2013. MATES in Construction said this culture of silence makes things worse. Lockwood acknowledged that MATES in Construction doesn’t seek to directly address bullying or other problematic behaviours, but pointed out that the introduction of the program typically leads to improved workplace culture as a by-product. “It’s not designed to remedy every ill across the industry,” Lockwood said. “MATES seeks to give people the skills to recognise when someone is struggling, and the confidence to help them connect to help.”
MATES has nevertheless partnered with AISRAP and the Queensland Government to undertake a survey of apprentices in the construction industry. “It’s important for us to understand their work contexts, stressors and protective factors, if they are to be better supported within the industry,” Lockwood said. With a moniker that draws on Australian traditions of mateship, MATES in Construction currently operates in Queensland, New South Wales (NSW), South Australia, Western Australia and New Zealand. The national body, MATES in Construction Australia, commenced in 2013. Pilot programs are rolling out in the mining and energy industries.
Training is a core focus of the MATES program. ‘General Awareness’ training is delivered to workers onsite, while ‘Connector’ training encourages site volunteers to be on the lookout for struggling co-workers. ‘Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training’ (ASIST) allows trained volunteers to work with an individual experiencing suicidal thoughts and ideations to help them create a safe plan. “We always roll out the program using pairs of trainers so we can manage safety in the session,” Lockwood said. “If someone needs to leave the room, one of the trainers will follow after them to check they’re OK because we talk about some very heavy stuff.” Onsite visits by field officers such as Geange provide workers with additional targeted support.
MATES prides itself on evidence-based practice and is the only suicide prevention organisation of its kind to produce peer-recognised research. Lockwood said MATES is currently working with the University of Melbourne on MATES Mobile, a randomised controlled trial aimed at determining the effectiveness of a mobile phone app in reinforcing training messages and lowering distress levels. MATES has also partnered with the University of Newcastle to undertake research into the impact of the program in the mining industry in NSW. Funded by the Coal Services Health and Safety Trust, this research involves both quantitative surveys and qualitative focus groups.
The academic reference group helps the organisation determine research priorities and comprises academics working in diverse fields, including population health, social epidemiology, psychology and industrial relations. Its existence ensures that MATES enters into research partnerships where projects are rigorously and ethically designed, and clearly aligned with organisations’ established research priorities. It’s difficult to quantify the success of the program, because people who are saved from suicidal crisis don’t become a statistic. But to date, MATES in Construction has delivered General Awareness training to 181,721 people and case managed 8694 people. MATES in the mining and energy industries has also trained a further 19,578 people and case managed a further 194 people.
Organisations can demonstrate their support of their workers’ mental health by signing up to the Construction Blueprint for Better Mental Health (www.constructionblueprint.com.au) and by ensuring their sites are MATES accredited. Geange said that he still occasionally battles with suicidality, but has developed strategies that keep him safe and well. “I’ve built scaffolding around myself, so if I do wobble, I don’t fall over,” he said. “I’m hoping the tough stuff I’ve been through might help someone else.”
MATES in Construction is a previous National Safety Awards of Excellence Pinnacle Award recipient.
If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, Lifeline has a 24/7 crisis support service that can help, please call 13 11 14.
Denise Cullen is a Brisbane-based journalist and psychologist who writes on a diverse range of issues, including mental health, criminology and safety.
Image credits: ©MATES in Construction