Flying the flag for suicide prevention

The construction industry loses six times more people to suicide than to workplace accidents. This is a statistic that must change, says MATES in Construction’s Jorgen Gullestrup.

“In our industry, we lose a worker to suicide every second day. We have to admit that these deaths are preventable, and that we can change this,” MATES in Construction’s chief executive officer says.

In June, MATES in Construction released Mental Health in the Construction Industry, a report prepared by the University of Melbourne which found the suicide rate in the construction industry is 1.7 times higher than other industries.

Gullestrup (pictured, right) says there are a range of reasons why the construction industry bears a heavy suicide burden.

“Suicide isn’t like a workplace accident, where we can point to a missing scaffold. It’s a combination of work, home and background coming together,” he says.

Three-quarters of suicides in Australia are men, and the construction industry is disproportionately male-dominated, he explains.

“Construction workers tend to drink and drug a bit more than the average, which puts them in a higher risk category. They are also more likely to be divorced, work away from home, work long hours, have less formal education and low job security. These are all risk factors for suicide.

“It may be stigma or poor help-seeking, but the research that laid the foundation for MATES in Construction found that only 32 per cent of construction workers taking their own lives were receiving mental health treatment at the time of death.”

Gullestrup says awareness campaigns can help combat these issues, and direct people to appropriate health services.

Thursday 14 September is R U OK? Day, Australia’s national day of action for suicide prevention. MATES in Construction’s campaign for R U OK? Day, Fly the Flag, encourages construction teams to check in on their colleagues.

Fly the Flag has grown from 200 sites in 2015 to more than 700 sites and around 50,000 workers registered to participate this year.

MATES in Construction has also launched a new campaign this week, funded by the Queensland Government, called Talk to Mates, which is targeted at smaller businesses, and those in rural and remote areas.

“We know that, generally, rural and remote areas have higher suicide rates than cities. Disconnection and isolation are significant risk factors, so we are looking at ways to help smaller companies to connect with our message,” he says.

Gullestrup and his team aren’t just focused on raising awareness. 27 trekkers are currently walking the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea to raise money so MATES in Construction can expand its services.

Among these current services are free onsite training programs that any company in the industry can access to help their teams talk about mental health and suicide, and free case management support for workers experiencing poor mental health.

“We know people who are suicidal often have strong feelings that they are a burden to others, and feel disconnected from those around them. These feelings often make it impossible for people to ask for help.

“When it is difficult to ask for help, we must find ways to offer help instead. It is well proven that a simple, well-meant phrase such as ‘are you ok?’ can save lives.”

Gullestrup and his team work across the industry to help people understand “what it looks like when someone is doing it tough, how to start a conversation with that person, and then how to connect them to the help they need”.

Gullestrup has spent the last decade leading MATES in Construction, which is both a personal and professional passion. Born in Denmark, he experienced periods of chronic depression as a young adult, and attempted suicide on several occasions.

A trained plumber, he moved to Australia to “change his life” and later represented the plumbing industry as a union official. During this time, he lost several members of his union to suicide, and became determined to “do something about it”.

“Construction workers are 70 per cent more likely to die by suicide than any other employed men in Australia.”

But there are things we can do to tackle this shocking statistic, he says.

“The good news is that suicide is entirely preventable – and it’s not particularly hard to do. It takes 10 seconds of courage to go up and ask someone if they are OK.”

The MATES in Construction Helpline is 1300 642 111.