'I Didn't Know He Was Struggling Until His Death': Why The Tradie Suicide Rate Is So High
Australian men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives and last year, 2,320 of them did.
In the construction area alone, an average of 190 die by suicide in Australia each year.
Clearly there is a crisis happening in our tradie culture.
Even more heartbreaking is that behind each of these numbers is a person -- someone’s son, brother, father, partner or friend -- and when their lives are taken by suicide, their loved ones are always the ones left to pick up the pieces. They try and move forward with their lives, and are filled with feelings of guilt, confusion and even a stigma that suicide can often unfairly bring. They are also often left with the nagging question that stays with them forever: why?
For Kristy Steenhuis, whose carpenter husband Matthew took his own life in 2005, the impact of his suicide has been ongoing and significant and she has never understood why he saw suicide as his only option.
“Matthew was a very quiet man that didn’t voice a lot about his troubles," she said.
"I didn’t even know he was struggling or depressed until his death. [The] impact on me and our children is enormous and has changed the direction of my life forever. To go from having your best friend alive and raising your children together to one day finding him after he has taken his life is unexplainable.
“I could no longer work due to the grief and depression that followed his death. I reached out to my family and close friends, however not having known anyone else that had [taken their own life] made it hard for them to know what to say or do, although they did their absolute best to support us.
"The stigma surrounding suicide made it hard. I felt a lot of guilt and shame at the time -- that it was somehow my fault that he had taken his life; if only I had of been a better wife he would’ve still been alive.
"I actually had someone say to me that it was my fault Matt killed himself, and called me a 'murderer'. I know now this is certainly not the case, but when I was in the grips of grief I believed [it].”
For Kristy, the devastating loss of her husband has not been her only experience with suicide.
“Since [his] passing, I can count at least six other men who were also tradies (mainly carpenters) that have also taken their own lives. It is astonishing.”
A painter within the building industry, Jeremy Forbes, has also been touched personally by suicide. For him it was the loss of a fellow tradie mate in 2013.
“At the wake, another tradie friend said something that made me really take notice," Jeremy said.
"It wasn’t a comment about our friend who had lost his life, or the service -- instead he asked a question: 'I wonder who will be next?'”
This was the catalyst that drove Jeremy to focus his time and attention on making changes within the industry, creating a support group for tradies so they know they are valued by the community and to assist them in linking with support and mental health services for themselves and their mates.
From his work within HALT and as a tradie himself, Jeremy identified several key issues that have contributed to the high industry suicide rate, including: financial management issues due to a lack of financial education, coping with relationship difficulties, bullying, harassment, alcohol , drugs and gambling.
"The tradie industry is a toxic culture of men who don’t talk," he said.
"There is an attitude of 'you’ll be right' -- the idea that tradies are tough and don’t need to talk about what is worrying them.”
“Matthew was a typical tradie bloke that didn’t cry or show emotions and talk about the fact that he was struggling," she said.
"[He was] like so many men in this industry. There's an idea that they must be ‘real men’ and they don’t talk about feelings."
Kristy and Jeremy now actively work in suicide prevention -- Jeremy through the organisation HALT and Kristy through Survivors of Suicide, a support network for those who have been bereaved. They work to encourage tradies to speak up and talk about their feelings, without the fear of stigma or embarrassment -- a crucial step in lowering the number of suicides.
In March this year the tireless work of HALT was recognised by the Federal Government, which announced a two million dollar, four-year funding package to help develop a HALT national program, which aims to (amongst other things) oversee the development of ‘HALT friendly’ medical clinics to assist tradies to secure mental health appointments.
When it comes to tradies' mental health, HALT has definitely seen a shift in attitude and thinking, especially in those seeking support services.
"The trade industry is getting better about getting men to open up about what’s happening with their mental health," Kristy acknowledges.
This is certainly encouraging, but there's still a lot of work to be done.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For tradie-specific information and support, contact HALT's website or Facebook page. For support for those affected by the loss of a loved one, contact Survivors of Suicide. For further information about anxiety, depression and mental health contact beyond blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.