MATES in Construction – supporting the construction industry

Article contributed by MATES in Construction

Each year over 2,500 Australian’s die by suicide, more than twice the number of deaths from traffic accidents.  Three out of four suicides are by men, making suicide the leading cause of death amongst men between 15 and 44 years of age. The World Health Organisation estimates that for every person who dies by suicide at least 15 will attempt suicide and three attempts will result in permanent incapacity. On average 191 construction workers have died by suicide each year over the past 10 years.

The construction industry has been found to have significantly elevated suicide rates while there is evidence of higher than average mental stress within the coal mining industry.  Simplistic assumptions blaming work factors such as FIFO/DIDO or personal issues miss the point as reality is far more complex.  Poor mental health and suicidal behaviours are caused by a combination of the individual personal, social and environmental factors.

In 2008, the MATES in Construction program was established in response to a report by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention commissioned by industry which found the male suicide rate in the Queensland construction industry was 1.75 times greater than the general Australian male suicide rate.  In addition, the report identified young workers to be 2.39 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-construction cohort.

MATES in Construction was established as an independent incorporated charitable organisation dedicated to the implementation of the MATES in Construction Suicide Prevention Program. It operates solely for the benefit of the workers in the construction industry. Whilst MATES in Construction receives funding from industry funds, unions and employer associations it works independently and respectfully with the industry. MATES in Construction is a collective industry solution to an industry problem.

The aim of MATES in Construction is community development through building long-term resilience and cultural change in the industry using best practice models. Best practice in delivery means using existing industry structures to engage with workers in their workplace community.

The success of the program has resulted in expansion to Western Australia, New South Wales and South Australia from 2011 through to 2012.  In 2015, the mining industry commenced a trial of MATES in Mining seeking to introduce a similar program within their industry.  In 2017, the energy industry introduced the MATES program.

The program consists of three elements.   General Awareness Training (GAT) is a one-hour on-site awareness session that leads the workforce through a discussion about suicide and mental health in our industry.  The target of this conversation is not men who are experiencing poor mental health, but those who work around them.  We found that men are much better at offering help than seeking help.  Everybody from management to apprentices participates in these sessions.  At the end of the session, workers are offered the opportunity to seek help with issues now and/or to become a volunteer with MATES in Construction.  On average three to five per cent seek help for various issues following training and 20 to 30 per cent offer to become volunteers. 

Subject to agreement with their employer, volunteers are offered additional training as Connectors.  A Connector is a mate who can keep you safe while connecting you to help.  The four-hour session is conducted onsite and provides workers with the confidence to support co-workers in asking about mental health and in connecting individuals to help. 

Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a two-day intensive, practice-based course to help recognise persons who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide and empower intervention to prevent the immediate risk of suicide. The objectives of ASIST are to discuss suicide with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide in an open, direct and honest manner; empower the caregiver with skills to intervene with a person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and assist a person experiencing thoughts of suicide to develop a plan to remain safe in the interim.

Lifting Matters MATES in Construction

MATES in Construction employ Field Officers who provide support for volunteers onsite through training and site visits.  Field Officers may organise counselling and debriefings on sites following critical incidences or suicide in collaboration with Standby (a dedicated Postvention service). Volunteers and workers in the industry are also supported by a 24/7 helpline. 

MATES in Construction supports the industry through case management services.  Case Managers advocate for the client in their clinical journey and may be a valuable link between services, the client's personal support structure and, where appropriate, their workplace – all crucial in effective recovery.

Health, safety and environment includes the mental health and wellbeing of employees.  Employers who deal with workplace mental health issues in the same considered and systematic way as physical safety issues will have positive flow-on effects with respect to productivity, safety and overall performance. Industry-based programs such as MATES in Construction have the benefit of minimising privacy concerns, whilst empowering the workforce to tackle important issues, such as mental health.

For more information about MATES in Construction, visit their website.

If you or someone you know is struggling, call MATES in Construction 24/7 on 1300 642 111 or Lifeline 13 11 14.

Sally Austin