This Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke with Victoria McArthur, CEO of Mates in Construction about the high suicide rates amongst construction workers in Aotearoa and how the suicide prevention programme is helping.
Why are suicide rates so high in the construction industry?
In 2016, the Suicide Mortality Review Committee identified that the construction industry was significantly contributing to New Zealand's suicide rate at a higher level than other industries.
In 2018, Sitesafe commissioned another piece of research looking at the contributing factors and stresses. It was after this research that Mates in Construction (MATES) formed in 2019.
The research is still young in its findings. Thankfully BRANZ is funding us to commission ongoing research, led by the University of Otago's Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, to understand more about these devastating rates. Dr Jenkin is a social scientist and the Director of the Suicide and Mental Health Research Group. We're confident the research will present a clearer picture of how our industry is contributing to the additional pressures that can impact somebody's suicidality.
How has the industry reacted to MATES suicide prevention programmes?
Mates in Construction has only been in existence since November 2019, but the industry response to the implementation of our suicide prevention programmes has been overwhelmingly positive. New Zealand is very good at postvention and looking at what happens after a suicide. We all gather together to support whanau and the people who have been affected by the suicide but what we aren't so good at going back to the beginning and determining what would have helped prevent suicide in the first place. MATES is a suicide prevention programme and addresses a worker's struggles early and connects them to help.
Is the 'tough guy' culture in the industry, contributing to the suicide rate?
The 'tough guy' culture in the construction industry is part of the problem and leads people to hide their thoughts when they are struggling, because of the stigma associated with poor mental wellness and asking for help. Everyone has heard the phrase 'take a concrete pill and toughen up.' That attitude is not only prevalent in our industry; it's a societal issue that we have had for a very long time and leads to the saying 'real men don't talk'. Ninety-nine per cent of the people that we lose to suicide in the construction sector are men who are stoic in their behaviour and recognised as being the guys who do the hard yards. The tough-guy image of workers in our industry is preventing many people who require help opening up to workmates, family or professionals.
Where is the tipping point that takes mental health issues onto thoughts of suicide?
Suicide is not an illness; it is something that happens when you can't go on.
Poor mental health or mental illness is not always a predisposition to someone taking their life. Fifty-two per cent of those who we lose to suicide had no known history of mental illness. What we do know is suicide can be caused by being unable to cope with whatever is going on in your life at that time. People may have poor mental health due to depression or anxiety, but the stress that comes from life's daily struggles is a reason that people consider taking their own life. Other things that move people towards the tipping point are being unable to cope with bullying, alcohol, drugs, a poor lifestyle, societal factors including poverty or low education and financial pressures.
What's being done to reduce the suicide rate in the construction industry?
One of the most positive moves in recent years is a massive improvement in suicide awareness. We see better messaging about talking to someone when you are struggling or helping your mates if they are struggling. This behaviour is essential and fits well with the Mates in Construction industry programmes. However, there is one further step that is needed to make the prevention model work, and that is how do you access support services at an early stage.
Is this where Mates in Construction comes in?
When we go onto a worksite, we run a General Awareness Training programme for all workers. We talk about suicide, the effect that it's having on the industry, and then look at the things that may be contributing to a change in worker's behaviour. Then we move on to one of the essential parts of our training. Once behavioural changes have been identified that may point toward a mate is struggling or having thoughts around suicide, we need to know what to do next. MATES talks about how to navigate that path and gives them the tools to understand how to get there. MATES is building capacity on-site with a whole-of-community approach. We make sure everyone has the skills and tools in their toolbelt to help a mate or seek help themselves.
What's a MATES connector?
When General Awareness Training is underway on a construction site, we ask for volunteers to become Connectors. It's an additional (free) four-hour training programme for anyone who wants to become a Connector. These people are trained to help keep someone safe during a crisis while assisting them to get to support.
What is the MATES ASIST programme?
The programme involves intervention training for individuals who are capable of talking to a person who may be having thoughts around suicide to keep the person "safe".
If somebody is struggling right at that moment and are having thoughts of suicide, an ASIST worker can provide a calming environment by helping them look for turning points and help create a plan to keep them safe while connecting them with help. Again we can offer support from MATES, through our Case Management Managers who can link the person to the most appropriate help for them. It could be a psychologist, the right counsellor or direct them towards alcohol, substance or gambling support services.
How do companies react when MATES comes on a site?
We're welcomed with open arms.
MATES is independent, free, confidential and open to anyone. We create a village on the site, and it doesn't matter whether you're a client, architect, engineer, electrician or labourer; everyone is welcome to engage with the programme.
The focus of the programme is to create a whanau and ensure everyone is part of a group that is looking after each other. Once workers have been through our training programme, they place a sticker on their hard hat, white for GAT, green for Connector and blue for ASIST, which indicates they are part of MATES in Construction. It shows that you're a mate and you're there to support each other.
I believe we're making progress in the area of suicide prevention in the construction industry, and the only thing that is holding us back is getting more funding to have more Field Officers onto sites. We've recently received a one-off fund from the Construction Sector Accord to address some of the added pressures our industry is facing at the moment. Still, we have a long way to go to be able to help everyone within our industry.
Remember if you or a mate is struggling, you can ring our helpline 0800 111 315.