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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Case study:

MATES in Construction

MATES in Construction (MATES) is a workplace‑based suicide prevention and early intervention program designed to address high suicide rates in the construction industry.

Suicide is a major health problem that is known to disproportionately affect those employed in manual occupations, including construction workers and tradespeople. Chris Lockwood, National CEO of MATES, said, ‘the industry realised that it was an industry problem, and as an industry we needed to take ownership of the problem’.

Mr Lockwood said MATES uses a peer support model to help construction industry workers support each other to reduce the risk of suicide.

The idea behind the MATES model is that we connect people to help. Rather than replicating help, we actually need to build a bridge to the help that is available.

We want to equip men with the skills to approach a colleague and say, ‘Mate, you’re not looking too good. Can we have a chat about where you’re at?’ An offer like that can open up an honest conversation. Some people, and particularly men, may be a bit guarded, but you’d be surprised how people will open up when they’re approached in a genuine way. Traditional suicide prevention approaches tend to focus on promoting help‑seeking behaviours. Of course, that’s important, but we’re aiming to build on men’s existing help‑offering behaviours.

MATES started in Queensland in 2008 and is now active in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales and the Northern Territory. The program operates under a partnership, which acknowledges the shared responsibility between workers, industry partners and government. It obtains funding from a diverse pool of sources that include state redundancy funds, direct industry funding, governments and grants.

For MATES in Construction, the need to work with the industry meant getting the unions and the employers on board, and having them agree to roll out a program that was industry‑wide. We wanted the program to become a normal part of the construction industry, and not be particular to any one business.

The success of MATES is largely delivered through this genuine partnership which builds trust in the program from the workers and the broader construction community, seeing buy in from all to make a genuine difference.

MATES provides on‑site training to encourage help‑seeking and early intervention through people called ‘Connectors’. Connectors are trained in suicide first aid and are supported by outreach, case management, and a 24‑hour telephone response line. There is also a postvention component for suicide and industrial deaths.

A number of peer‑reviewed, published evaluations of MATES have been completed, and all have shown positive outcomes. These include an increase in workers having favourable attitudes about the workplace’s role in confronting mental health issues and suicide; positive changes in suicide prevention awareness, knowledge and attitudes; and an increase in workers seeking help and treatment.

Feedback on MATES from construction workers is positive, with one worker commenting:

MATES was great at keeping in contact and checking in with me to make sure I was ok, while I was going up and down with my emotions and situation and making sure I stayed positive and could see a way forward.

Sources: Witness Statement of Chris Lockwood, 27 May 2020; Allison Milner, Heather Niven and Anthony LaMontagne, ‘Suicide by Occupational Skill Level in the Australian Construction Industry: Data from 2001 to 2010’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 38.3 (2014), 281–285; Professor Chris Doran and others, An Evaluation of MATES in Construction: Queensland Case Management, 2019.