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Finding MATES a Key to Improving Mental Health on the Jobsite

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Suicide prevention is an important consideration for every industry. It is particularly crucial for the construction industry due to its male-dominated nature and the prevalence of stigma surrounding mental health.

In order to find out more about this growing issue, Jobsite ANZ spoke with Carolyn Kelso, the Field Officer and Case Manager for MATES in Construction, an Australian charity devoted to reducing the suicide rate amongst construction workers. MATES offer programs that can help reduce the stigmatisation of mental illness and encourage construction employees to get the help they need.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

MATES is a charity and founded in 2008 to independently deliver programs across the construction industry. Their main goal is equipping workers with the skills to identify early warning signs of mental illness and gain the courage to ask for help. As suicide amongst construction workers is the highest among all occupations in Australia (besides mining), programs to reduce suicide rates are essential.

Their main goal is equipping workers with the skills to identify early warning signs of mental illness and gain the courage to ask for help.

“The main focus is on mates helping mates and on suicide prevention in particular. We train up workers and give them the tools to help each other,” says Kelso.

MATES does three levels of training, all conducted on construction sites. The first level involves General Awareness training, focusing on providing statistics on suicide rates and information on getting help.

“We go through what it might look like when someone is doing it tough and how someone might be feeling. The first part of the presentation is basically where to get help, how to get help, and what to do when someone is struggling.”

The second level is called Connecter and involves giving workers skills to be a suicide alert helper.

“We deliver the safe talk program, and it’s the best practice for suicide prevention worldwide,” says Kelso.

The third and final level of training is called Assist. It provides intervention-first training for construction workers to equip them with the skills necessary to help co-workers who are struggling with their mental health.

“Participants learn the skills on how to actually intervene on suicide and create a safe plan together when someone is having thoughts of suicide.”

In addition to its three-level program, MATES also has a 24/7 national helpline that construction workers can use to contact and gain information on how to access help.

MATES also has a 24/7 national helpline that construction workers can use to contact and gain information on how to access help.

“We are not counsellors; we don’t do counselling—what we do is case management. Individuals can ring our 24/7 hotline, and we listen to what’s going on and provide them with some information on how to go forwards; whether it is going to a doctor, getting a psychologist referral, relationships counselling, or drug and alcohol referrals,” says Kelso.

Early Warning Signs and Reducing Stigma

Identifying early warning signs of suicide and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially amongst males, can help decrease the high rates of suicide in the industry. Of all the early warning signs, relationship problems seem to be a cause for concern.

“What we found in our report was that over 50 per cent of construction workers that killed themselves had gone through relationship problems or a breakup. With under 24-year-olds, it was around 35 per cent,” says Kelso.

Other issues arising from relationship problems and/or breakups that can be warning signs of suicide are financial issues, conflict, and child custody battles. In addition, alcohol and drug use is also a big issue for construction workers, mainly as these substances are often used as coping mechanisms to deal with relationship problems and other issues.

According to Kelso, being able to identify early signs of mental health issues at work can go a long way in preventing suicide, considering the amount of time that co-workers spend together.

Identifying early signs of mental health issues at work can go a long way in preventing suicide, considering the amount of time that co-workers spend together.

“We probably spend more time at work than with our friends and family so it just makes sense to give the skills to work colleagues, as many of us would prefer to talk to a mate than to go and ring a helpline.”

Giving these skills to ordinary individuals in a community can help to normalise mental health issues, thus reducing stigma.

“There still is a certain degree of stigma; you have to be tough and suck it up. What we do find quite often, when we have done some training, is that stigma shifts a bit. We have a long way to change the perception of mental health totally, but if we can shift it a bit, we help normalise it,” says Kelso.

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