Suicide prevention programme Mates in Construction seeks Government funding as number of young tradies taking their lives rises

Warning: This story discusses suicide.

Young New Zealand men in the construction sector are taking their own lives at an alarming rate, data from the Coroner's office reveals.

Experts believe increased stress, poor contracts, tight deadlines, and uncertainty all play a part.

A Newshub investigation has examined data released under the Official Information Act by the Chief Coroner of open and closed cases. It shows 161 constructions workers, all but one of whom are men, may have died from suicide in three years from 2017 to 2020. This is an average of about 53 deaths per year. In the ten years preceding that, the average was 30 per year.

One construction worker, who has requested to be known by just his first name, Richard, says his best friend, another construction worker, had taken his own life.

"Finally tried to contact him, went to go visit him, his mother told me, 'we lost him'," Richard tells Newshub.

Richard says speaking to Newshub about his friend's death was the first time he'd talked about his loss, and it brought him some relief.

Mates in Construction want more tradies to open up to help improve mental wellness and reduce suicide in the construction industry. Their suicide prevention programme has already had incredible results in Australia and has been running for free for construction workers in New Zealand for the past year.

Raman Lee, a Mates field officer who leads sessions for construction workers, knows six people who have taken their lives.

CEO Victoria McArthur says the goal of Mates in Construction is simple: "This is about people."

"It is about people's lives and it is about saving people's lives," she says.

"Since we began we have delivered the programme to almost 10,000 workers - there are approximately 200,000 in our industry.

"We are looking to attain funding of around $2 million to enable us to deliver Mates across the whole of New Zealand and capture all of our industry, including residential, civil and commercial."

Victoria McArthur.
Victoria McArthur. Photo credit: Newshub.

More than 60 percent of construction workers who took their own life over three years were under 35, and builders were represented much more than other tradespeople.

As far as regions go, Canterbury DHB had the highest proportion of deaths, with Waikato and Southern next.

Built Environs general manager Greg Ford had his boots nailed to the ground when he was an apprentice. He says bullying is still a problem and so is stress - but says one conversation can save someone's life.

"It is the first step for a person who is not feeling well to get the right help."

Ford is one of many construction bosses funding Mates in Construction.

"I just want people to open up," he says.

But Ford and McArthur say the programme costs $2 million a year to run, and they can't just rely on a handful of construction companies to fund it.

They want help from the Government, and clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland says time is of the essence.

"Now is the time to do something about it," he says. "We have got money put aside and really the call is for the Government to act on this now."

The managing director of one constructions company knows two young workers who have died by suicide.

But he says it feels like there is little to no support for construction businesses wanting to help employees.

"His dad walked up the stairs and told me he had taken his life, and that really shook me because he was only about 22."

Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Wood says this is something he will discuss with colleagues who are part of the construction sector accord.

"That is absolutely an issue we will take seriously."

Construction worker Richard has been through the Mates course, and he says Government funding is a no-brainer.

"That is just a drop in the bucket for what they are spending money on other things."

In the meantime, Richard has a message for tradies in trouble.

"You've just got to seek some help."

Tradie Craig Bulloch won an uphill battle against suicidal thoughts and is on a mission to break the stigma around mental health.

He wants men to start talking about their feelings and says talking with his brother saved his life.

"I started getting back into my physical activities and started getting into Ironman and I thought if any 'Joe Blow' could get through it then I thought hey anyone can."

Where to find help and support: