Silent shame killing tradies
THE last time Jeremy Forbes saw his fellow tradie mate Pete alive in 2013, the normally quiet metal worker was uncharacteristically bubbly.
Two weeks later, Pete was dead after taking his own life at his home in Castlemaine in country Victoria.
At the wake a few days later, a shell-shocked Mr Forbes was standing with a few mates, looking around the room packed full of construction workers, when someone uttered two words that shook him to his core.
Suicide rates among young tradies are 2.3 times higher than for other men, and a construction worker is around 10 times more likely to take their own life than die in a workplace accident.
Those in the industry know it happens but no one talks about it, Mr Forbes explained, let alone express their own feelings if they're struggling.
"I looked around the room that day and I could see guys who I knew were struggling," he recalled.
"But because of that culture of 'be stoic, be strong and suck it up', no one ever says anything. You just watch them go into that tunnel. And even if someone did admit they were struggling, what do you say? I didn't know."
Gotcha4Life is dedicated to an in-school program which helps educate young men about resilience and the importance of friendships and a scholarship program with Lifeline, which aims to train more male counsellors - better appealing to men in crisis.
Mr Forbes said he had an "epiphany" at the wake, from which HALT was born - his charity Hope Assistance Local Tradies.
If blokes find it tough to talk about their feelings or ask for help when the darkest of dark clouds descend, Mr Forbes said tradies find it damn near impossible.
"You don't sit around a building site and mention that you're depressed or anxious or in a rough patch," he said.
"The masculine, macho tradie culture makes blokes afraid to talk about anything for fear of being judged or seen as being weak, and so you push it down and down."
The physical demands of the job, coupled with a general instability of work and finances, means those in construction juggle a lot of potentially negative forces.
"Not dealing with things often manifests itself in gambling, alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, bad financial choices … so many awful things.
"For many men, one day the dam wall bursts. It's kind of a perfect storm of factors."
The focus of HALT is to bring tradies together at a grassroots, community level to have a yarn, enjoy some free food and then, subtly and without too much fuss, give them a bag full of pamphlets for support services.
Mr Forbes held his first event shortly after his mate Pete's death in the timber yard of a local hardware store.
"We called it the 'save your bacon breakfast' and put on bacon and egg rolls and had blokes come along. There was a bit of a social vibe so there was no pressure. Then everyone went away with a goodie bag."
Some five years on, HALT has held more than 220 events across five states at hardware shops, TAFE colleges and sporting clubs.
They target apprentices just starting out through to industry veterans with decades of experience under their tool belts.
Events are held at the crack of dawn to catch people before work, in the evenings to get them on the way home, in classrooms between training and down at the oval at the end of footy training.
"Every event we've had, at least one tradie has come up to me after and told me about their suicide attempt. They've never felt empowered or supported before to talk about it. They feel huge shame. But then they see they're not the only one - that's an incredible impact.
"We were at a footy club recently and this young bloke came up and said he was struggling, really struggling, but he was going to book in with his doctor first thing the next day.
"It almost brought tears to my eyes."
Mr Forbes has recognised that most men aren't aware of the plethora of support services available to help in times of crisis.
Or they simply need a bit of encouragement to be able to reach out - to know that they're not alone and that it's "OK to put your hand up".
"What we need to really help men is a connection in the community, in the spaces where men are and feel comfortable, to those support services. That's what HALT is trying to do - build a bridge between them."
HALT operates without any state or federal funding, but Mr Forbes was the recipient of a Westpac Social Change Fellowship in 2016 that took him to the UK to work with not-for-profit experts and refine his organisation's goals.
"I was able to build stronger connections and learn a lot about how to keep things going," he said.
"And then I got a Westpac Community Grant this year for $10,000, which was a huge help."
It also gave HALT some major prominence and led to Mr Forbes being invited to give a TED talk about suicide in the construction industry.
His emotive presentation has been viewed online more than 1.1 million times.
"That's out of control. It's awesome. I hope people watch that and then go out and have conversations."
Mr Forbes still doesn't know why his mate Pete was so happy that day he saw him. That final 10-minute conversation - much longer than they normally spoke - still rings in his ears.
It's the same sort of questions he and other friends had at that wake back in 2013, for which there were few answers.
And it's those unanswered questions that continue to inspire Mr Forbes to do his bit for other men, even if it's an incredibly hard slog running a national charity.
"The pain of regret is far greater than the pain of hard work," he said.
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au .
Find out more about the work of Gotcha4Life by visiting gotcha4life.org.