Men's Health Week: Encouraging men to 'open up' about depression isn't good enough, says Site Safe CEO Brett Murray

Warning: This article discusses suicide.

By now, most of us know about this country's staggering male suicide rates.

The homepage for Men's Health Week 2019 specifically mentions it as a focus, and various campaigns of the last few years have encouraged men to be upfront with how they're feeling - less stiff upper lip, more talking things through.

But what actually happens after they admit they're struggling?

In the wake of an alarming report into suicide in the construction sector, Site Safe chief executive Brett Murray says the well-meaning adage of "just open up" is no longer good enough.

"All the rhetoric around it is just fluff," he told Newshub. "I think it needs to move beyond the fluffiness of it and get down to reality."

Having spent 15 years in the police force, Murray's keenly aware of the many social and psychological barriers that stop men from seeking help.

"I look back at when I was a police officer attending sudden deaths, sometimes five in a week, and the shutters you put down to deal with that. You almost depersonalise it. But over the years that comes with a big toll, and it was one of the reasons why I left."

With the report's release, nonprofit organisation Site Safe hopes to help New Zealanders realise health and safety doesn't only apply to physical dangers.

It's a tricky thing to talk about because there's evidence that suicide rates increase when the subject receives heavy media coverage, but Murray believes it's hard to change attitudes without frank, open discussion.

"There's been a constant battle between the academic view of 'we don't want to mention it because it encourages copycat stuff'. The flipside is if we don't mention it, it keeps slipping under the carpet and it's really difficult to get funding for effective support structures.

"We're not looking to take sides, but what we are looking to do is get support for people in their work environments."

He credits the recent increase in depression awareness to high-profile Kiwis like John Kirwan and Mike King, who have launched male-targeted campaigns to reduce stigma and shame.

"Guys look at that and say 'well if JK's willing to speak up about it, then perhaps it's okay for me too'."

The value of "manly men" talking about wellbeing can't be understated, he says.

"Look who our heroes are. Edmund Hillary and the All Blacks. That's fine, but it promulgates a macho stereotype of the ideal New Zealand male which is probably not true. I think a lot of guys who aren't in that boat really struggle with 'that's not me, but I can't let people see it's not me'."

Site Safe's report, the biggest of its kind ever conducted in New Zealand, revealed construction workers aged 18 to 25 are six times more likely to die by suicide than a workplace accident.

A current labour shortage means long hours and tough working conditions on top of a pre-existing "macho bro culture", which has proven a deadly combination. Murray says the ever-changing nature of project-based construction work also plays a part.

"Quite often if you're in an Allied Workforce labour gang, you don't even know the guys you're working with. You show up on site and you don't know anyone from a bar of soap. You're hardly going to 'fess up to them, and that's your day to day. Every week's a different group of people. And if you don't have a big network of friends outside of work, it's all compounded."

That's a major problem: lots of men don't have any close friends. The ones that do often aren't comfortable talking about how they're feeling.  

"Women sit down and have girl talks with their friends about life," Murray says. "Guys don't tend to do that. They come together and talk about the rugby game on the weekend. It's very superficial."

Having been in the "black hole" of depression himself, Murray knows it can be impossible to see a way out.

"The sad thing is when you are in depression you withdraw from people, you don't actually go seek help, you pull away. It's very much a self-sabotaging thing."

The best people to draw someone out of their thicket of misery are often not immediate family, but someone slightly removed yet trusted. However, not everyone has those kinds of people in their lives - which is where the workplace needs to provide a backstop.

We spend about a third of our waking hours working so, of course, it has an impact on our mental wellbeing. Of the 300 suicides in the construction industry between 2007 and 2017, 32.3 percent were deemed to have been somewhat influenced by workplace pressures.

"It's a hugely complicated issue," Murray says. "People bring their lives into work and they don't just check their lives at the gate, they bring them into work, and their mental health and wellbeing affects not only them but others around them.

"If you have a suicide in a small team, it's devastating to the other team members. There are huge impacts on the work environment."

Employers should focus not so much on individual needs, but addressing mental illness as an inevitable workplace health and safety issue and having support structures in place. That means employers have to do more than namecheck mental health with a vague encouragement to "open up".

Murray's a fan of the famously expressive Mike King's phrase: "If you pick the scab off a wound, you'd better be sure you've got a bandage handy."

"When you open up about these things, where's the support? People say 'okay I've opened up, where do I go? Oh okay, I'll ring a helpline and in six months I'll get counselling'."

Those in high-risk professions are particularly disinclined to speak up because of the possibility they'll be fired.

"If you think it's an issue opening up, try opening up as an Air New Zealand pilot about your mental health issues and see where that lands your employment," Murray says.

"The airline can't afford to put you in a plane the next day. How do you deal with that? Or if you're a crane driver or a scaffolder in a high-risk environment, there's a real reluctance for guys to come forward because what if they think you're a nut job? So they just close it in, shut it down."

Men are disproportionately affected by this because they're more likely to work in high-risk occupations than women.

"You invest 30 years into becoming a pilot and then you're gone in a day. But from the airline's perspective and the public's perspective, it's too much of a risk."

So what can be done? Foundational change across all sectors that recognises staying safe at work doesn't just mean wearing hard hats and covered shoes.

It could look like mental health being incorporated into basic training for all apprentices, to set workers up for the rest of their careers.

It could look like experienced industry professionals mentoring younger workers and talking through the specific emotional pressures of their sector.

It could look like using reference-backed evidence to try new approaches to health and safety, both at work and at home.

"We don't have all the answers, but if there's a solution that looks like it might work, let's try it," Murray says.

"If it doesn't work, what can we tweak to make it better? We can't just keep going down the track we know for miles. What we're doing is picking the scab at the moment. That's how you stop the bleeding: you can leave the scab in place where it will fester, or you can pick it off but you need something there.

"When you open Pandora's box you have to be careful, you have to be willing to step up to the plate."

Where to find help and support:

Men's Health Week (June 10 - 16) aims to bring awareness to health issues that disproportionately affect men.