Addressing suicide in the construction industry, from one who knows

by Sophie Berrill
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Justin Geange loved his work in the plumbing trade for 20 years. Then in 2012, at the age of 40, he pivoted to studying psychology at Swinburne Online. It was less about a career change, and more about understanding the mental health challenges that followed him his whole life.

Geange had been in and out of hospital for decades before finally being diagnosed with Bipolar Type Two later in 2012, following a breakdown. His mental health eventually declined to the point where he attempted suicide.

It’s sadly not an uncommon story in the construction industry. 

Suicide rates disproportionately high in the construction industry

In 2021, the University of Melbourne examined suicide rates among construction workers compared with other workers in Australia. The researchers looked at nationwide data from 2001 to 2018. They found increased suicide mortality in construction workers relative to other workers in Australia.

Previous research showed a number of factors put construction workers at increased risk of suicide. Firstly, workers in this industry are predominantly men. Men are at much greater risk of suicide than women, according to the World Health Organisation. Job-specific characteristics also come into play. These include limited job control, job insecurity, periods of unemployment or underemployment, travel, and periods of time working away from family and support.

The other big problem mental health organisations are trying to address is lack of open discussion around mental health in this industry. MATES in Construction, an industry-backed suicide prevention and support program, is one of them. This organisation says construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than an accident at work.

Changing the industry from the inside

For Geange, the breakdown reduced his capacity to function in the workplace. It was then that his mental health case manager discussed the unique opportunities of becoming a peer support worker. Now, he’s a field officer for MATES.

Drawing on the lessons from his psychology degree, Geange’s work entails training people in the construction industry in suicide prevention. That includes showing workers how to identify if a mate is struggling, how to talk about that and how to get them help. He also connects people in crisis to the available community supports.

It’s a service he could have used when he was struggling.

“Back in the 90s when I started my trade, I would not have dreamed of discussing my challenges, let alone my mental health diagnosis!” he says.

But he believes the industry has improved in its approach to mental health.

“When I started my current role it was still hard yakka to get onto construction sites and talk about mental health and suicide prevention. Wind the clock forward 10 or so years and we have so many groups and organisations getting this important message out into workplaces and communities.”

Industry showing ‘positive changes’

These cultural changes could already be affecting the data. According to the University of Melbourne, trends suggest a steady decline in suicide rates among construction workers over time. There’s also a narrowing of the disparity in rates between construction and non-construction workers.

“These days, in my role we are under the pump trying to meet the demand from the industry for training and support in the mental health and suicide prevention space,” says Geange. 

“So yes, I would say there has definitely been a positive change.”

According to Geange, a lot of people in his line of work have had some sort of personal experience with mental ill health. Empathy is born from experience, he says.

“I don’t see myself as an expert. These are just my opinions as an ex-plumber with a mental illness,” says Geange.

“My transparency may just help someone feel less alone with their own challenges.”

Despite the progress, Geange says more can always be done to get the message out about suicide prevention in construction.

“There are people that I can reach, which is cool, but we all have our circle of influence, our mob, our tribe, our people. So if we all step up, more of our people will be empowered to have conversations that matter, further normalising this important message.”

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