By LEE ROBINSON
The suicide of a friend was the catalyst for Help Assistance Local Tradies (HALT) co-founder Jeremy Forbes to do more to support trades people, or “tradies”.
In 2013, at a wake for Mr Forbes’ friend and fellow tradie, Pete, being held in regional Victorian town Castlemaine, he remembers two terrifying words echoing through the room as they were uttered by friends and family: “who’s next?”.
Disheartened by the complacency, Mr Forbes believed the community could do something more proactive than resigning themselves to the idea that they would soon bury another community member who would die by suicide.
Soon after, he received a call from a friend, Catherine Pilgrim, who suggested doing something to support the tradies in the community.
Early one November morning in 2013 in the timber section of a Castlemaine hardware store, a place tradies felt comfortable and safe, Mr Forbes and Ms Pilgrim hosted the first ‘Save Your Bacon’ breakfast, which was the start of HALT.
The breakfast offered bacon and egg rolls and a firm reminder tradies were valued by the community and support services were available for them and their mates.
As a group, tradies have one of the highest suicide risks in Australia, with 98 per cent of tradies being men.
Suicide rates are more than two times higher among young tradies in Queensland than for other men in Australia.
In fact, a construction worker is around six times more likely to take their own life than die in a workplace accident.
A painter and decorator of 20 years, Mr Forbes knows the tradie culture well, labelling it the “she’ll be right” culture because he said it’s the response tradies give when a mate lets them know something isn’t okay.
“As a tradie you’re strong, you’re tough, you’re stoic, and you don’t talk about what’s going on in your life because that’s no one else’s business,” he said.
“No one wants to know because no one knows how to help you or what to say.”
While Mr Forbes spoke highly of the tradie community, he said he struggled with the macho culture, which has become the main focus of the work HALT does.
“It’s a culture where you don’t fix the problem. Being vulnerable is encased in shame, and shame is the biggest killer,” Mr Forbes said.
“It blows guys’ minds to hear they can talk about mental health to their GP and easily access services on a local, state and federal level.”
HALT has held more than 200 ‘Save Your Bacon’ events in five states, with plans to expand its reach across Australia and New Zealand.
The events aren’t limited to hardware stores, with locations including TAFE buildings, sporting clubs, secondary colleges, Men’s Sheds, farming and mining communities, corporations and private businesses.
The organisation engages with blue-collar workers and provides resources and information on how to manage stress, depression and anxiety, and where to go when a tradie or their mate needs help.
In March this year, the Federal Government committed to invest $2 million through the North Western Melbourne and South Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Networks to fund two HALT suicide prevention community workers over the next four years.
Mental health researcher, Dr Melissa Petrakis, has spent her career trying to improve mental health services through evidence-based programs.
Dr Petrakis said it’s critical that the government funds and focuses on the right projects.
“When [mental health] goes off the political agenda and other things get into the media cycle, it can be too difficult for the government to sustain important mental health projects and take them to scale,” she said.
“There is a lack of forethought around funding. The issue of mental health isn’t going away.”
While tradies are among the most vulnerable groups in the country, Dr Petrakis said a change in men’s attitudes is needed.
“You often have to drag men to a GP or a counsellor and they still might not engage,” Dr Petrakis said.
“In a blokey industry it’s smart practise to have men around who can talk with other men about addressing mental health concerns.”
Of the tens of thousands of tradies Mr Forbes has addressed, many tell him they wish they practiced more self-care and looked after themselves and their mates better.
“A lot of tradies just work hard, play hard and go home to their families…and they’re not taking enough time for themselves,” Mr Forbes said.
According the the Australian Bureau of Statistics, suicide rates increased between 2016 and 2017.
Mr Forbes is confident HALT’s grassroots approach is creating life-saving conversations.
After almost every event, Mr Forbes said he received emails of thanks from tradies who’ve decided to check in with a mate or access mental health services for themselves.
“Imagine instead of saying ‘she’ll be right’, you say ‘I’m really worried about you. I care. I love you. I think you should go see a doctor’,” he said.