During his time as a union official and State Secretary of the Plumbers Union, Jorgen Gullestrup was regularly faced with the harrowing task of helping families after the suicide of an industry member.
He says it often involved organising a collection for the family, or sorting out superannuation entitlements. For families, it was never really about the money, instead they would ask bigger questions around who would be father to the children now, or, would they have to move house?
On one occasion a woman asked Gullestrup a simple but vital question: “Did anyone see anything?”
It triggered an idea for him about a different approach to dealing with male suicide: an increased focus on preventative action, particularly around spotting the signs of someone struggling.
That idea is now the core of Mates In Construction, an industry suicide prevention organisation and support group Gullestrup started in 2008, in Queensland.
“There was a bit of a plan written on the back of a beer mat, which is where the best plans are written, to say, what about if we actually use the existing industry structures to make a difference, rather than come up with something new?”
At the time, a report by Griffith University had made recommendations intended to address the issue but, in the absence of finding any services that fitted the need, MIC took on the implementation themselves.
“It was about raising awareness,” he says. “It was about creating clear pathways to support. It was about increasing help seeking. It was about building resilience within people, giving people, particularly young workers, tools to cope better.”
Research suggests that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than in a workplace accident—with one person committing suicide every two days. Construction workers aged 15-24 are twice as likely to kill themselves than other men that age.
Gullestrup says because of the fragmented nature of construction, it was difficult to drive programs, particularly those that reached the most at-risk workers, the lower-paid and casual employees. So instead of building programs around specific employers, it built them around individual work sites when needed.
On top of that, MIC recognised that the constant message was urging men to speak up and seek help, but it didn’t influence behaviour.
“We changed the whole program so we don’t focus on help seeking at all,” he says. “We focus on what men are generally pretty good at, and that’s help offering,” he says. “We don’t actually talk to people about what it would feel like because we don’t like to use the ‘f’ word in the construction industry. So we don’t talk about what it feels like when somebody’s broken. We talk about what it looks like when somebody’s not doing so well.”
Over its 10 years, MIC has reached out to 140,000 construction workers, and has a network of 13,000 volunteers. It’s an approach of culture change, which Gullestrup says, has achieved a reduction of 8 per cent in suicide rates in Queensland.
In practice, it starts with sending a field officer for a one-hour conversation on site about what it looks like when a mate is struggling and what you can do about it. Then they ask for volunteers to work as connectors, like a first-aid officer, who can be someone workers can approach with questions or take the person to the connector. That involves a four-hour module, and it’s recommended that at least one in 20 workers per site are trained as connectors—there are 11,000 nationwide.
There’s another level again, ASIST workers. Training to be an ASIST worker involves a two-day workshop where people learn direct intervention. There are about 2000 ASIST workers.
Gullestrup says 10 years on, suicide prevention is part of the general safety and risk-management culture of the industry, alongside all the other aspects of setting up a site in terms of safety.
MIC works across Queensland, NSW, South Australia and Western Australia and is set to move into the Northern Territory. And it’s branched out, to Mates in Energy, a pilot scheme for the past 12 months, and Mates in Mining, which has been around for two years.
When workers come across MIC for the first time, they can be a little standoffish. “They’ll make a few jokes about it, because humour is a way we can deal with difficult things in a safe manner. That’s a good thing,”Gullestrup says.
“[But] what happens is, people start talking about it. One of the things is that most people in the industry would have lost someone to suicide. For most people it is actually real.”
For more information, see matesinconstruction.org.au.
Anyone needing mental health support can contact beyondblue in Australia at 1300 22 4636 or, if you are experiencing a crisis, Lifeline on 13 11 14 in Australia, 1-800-273-8255 in the USA, or call Sane in the UK on 0300 304 7000.
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