Comment – Start the Conversation

On World Suicide Prevention Day 2020, can we all take a moment for a chat?

Do you ever look at the TV news and ask yourself “why are we still talking about this?” Why are we still talking about hunger and poverty in Third World countries? Why are we still talking about racial and gender inequality? Why are we still talking about wars and conflicts? And why are we still talking about male suicide?

We live in a modern world of riches and resources that would have been unimaginable 10 or 20 years ago. We have more technology in our pockets than was used to place a man on the moon. That technology allows us to communicate across borders in real-time. Billionaires have replaced millionaires as an aspirational target. And yet, here we are in 2020 still talking about poverty 35 years after the Live Aid concert beamed the reality of Third World hunger into our homes. Still talking about racial inequality 57 years after Dr Martin Luther King shared with the world his dream that “one day, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Still talking about war 102 years after the cessation of the “war to end all wars”.

The fact that we’re still talking about poverty, inequality and conflict proves that each of these requires a complex solution; a solution that will require each of us to let go of long-ingrained perceptions and prejudices; and to embrace the notion that we are each our brothers’ keeper with an unspoken responsibility to help our fellow man (and woman).

The irony is that we’re still talking about male suicide when talking is, in fact, the solution this insidious and pernicious problem requires.

According to construction industry charity Mates in Mind, there were 6,507 suicides registered in the UK in 2018 alone. “We know from data previously reported by the ONS (2018) that the risk of suicide is elevated in some sectors of the economy such as construction, which is three times the national average for site workers,” says Mates in Mind Managing Director, James Rudoni. “Research suggests that open and honest communication about mental ill-health supports steps towards suicide prevention. These important conversations have the power to increase awareness and understanding, remind people they are not alone and help break the stigma which can be a barrier for those seeking help.”

All of which sounds simple. The fact that we’re still talking about it and the fact that we still require a World Suicide Prevention Day proves that is not the case. We might all be more aware today of mental health issues but – like war, poverty and inequality – awareness isn’t the same as cure. And in the field of construction and demolition we currently find ourselves living in unprecedented times of economic uncertainty, a fertile breeding ground for mental health issues. Post-lockdown but with the Coronavirus still hanging over all of us, many working men (and we are talking primarily about men here) are facing employment and financial fears and potential redundancy and unemployment. Those that have been fortunate enough to retain their jobs may find themselves working further from home, away from the support of family and friends.

I am neither a psychologist nor a statistician and I am certainly no expert on mental health issues. But against that background, a spike in construction sector suicides seems almost inevitable.

Mates in Mind believes that breaking the silence and stigma surrounding mental ill-health is a crucial step towards providing a safe and healthy workplace environment, which can play a vital role in suicide prevention.

The challenge is that this conversation needs to be ongoing. It is a conversation that needs to continue long after World Suicide Prevention Day; and long after the mental health awareness course organised at the behest of a construction client or a Tier 1 contractor. In my – admittedly limited – experience, this is currently not the case.

On the numerous occasions in the past when I have spoken or written about mental health, there is an instant outpouring of support and gratitude, often from people I have never met. Those discussions have even helped build bridges previously burned and put me back into positive contact with those that had a long-held and often justified) negative view of me. But it is short-lived. On the day an article or podcast drops, there is a huge spike in response. That spike quickly fades however. And within a week or a month, it is as if that conversation never took place at all.

Sad and frustrating though this might be, that precipitous fall-off points to precisely why this conversation belongs not on social media where attention spans are fleeting; in magazines or newspapers that are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping; nor in the classroom where lessons are all too often erased by the sounding of the dinner bell. This is a conversation that needs to take place – and continue to take place – between working men.

Those working men talk freely – and often in graphic detail – about their alcoholic excesses and their sexual conquests. So why don’t they talk about their mental health challenges, personal concerns and private anguish? My guess – and it is just a guess – is while the amount of beer consumed in a single sitting or the success with the opposite sex are seen as somehow manly, any admission of mental health issues is perceived as weakness. And that is the biggest concern of all right now.

Working men and site workers have already demonstrated an inability to “open up” to colleagues and employers amidst fears of being labelled weak. Now with the spectre of redundancy and unemployment looming large for many, some working men (and women) could be even more reluctant to admit their vulnerability and to seek support and help.

You can read more about World Suicide Prevention Day by clicking this link.