26/09/2018 - 09:56

‘The Hulk’ cuts through on mental health

26/09/2018 - 09:56
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Contractors Macmahon Holdings and AK Evans Earthmoving have found different ways to bolster mental health programs.

Soa Palelei helps to break down the stigma associated with mental health.

Contractors Macmahon Holdings and AK Evans Earthmoving have found different ways to bolster mental health programs.

When mining contractor Macmahon Holdings was planning a dedicated mental health program, it went in search of something special to get traction with its largely fly-in, fly-out workforce.

It partnered with Adelaide-based not-for-profit group Rural & Remote Mental Health, which is an acknowledged expert in the field.

Macmahon also made a long-term commitment to the program.

The ‘x’ factor was the recruitment of Soa Palelei, a retired mixed martial artist who competed internationally in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and was known to his many fans as ‘The Hulk’.

“The responses we have seen are absolutely amazing,” Macmahon’s manager HSEQ, Kale Ross, told Business News.

“I’ve seen people with tattoos up their neck admit to having issues.

“People have even come up to Soa at pre-starts and said, ‘You just saved my life’.

“And when one starts, the momentum builds.”

Macmahon’s Strong Minds, Strong Mines program is a leading example of the steps employers are taking to address mental health issues among their workers.

Research by Rural & Remote Mental Health, in conjunction with Edith Cowan University, highlighted the scale of the problem.

It found more than one in four Fifo workers (28 per cent) were experiencing high to very high psychological distress – a much higher level than the population overall.

Workers aged 25–34 and those on two-and-one rosters were most at risk.

High levels of stress were often associated with relationship issues and missing out on special events such as family birthdays, along with financial matters and social isolation.

Rural & Remote Mental Health chief executive Jennifer Bowers said the stigma related to mental health remained a major issue.

“Our research found that workers who felt there was stigma attached to mental health problems on site were the workers at greatest risk of high psychological distress,” Dr Bowers told Business News.

It’s exactly that challenge Macmahon has addressed by recruiting Mr Palelei as its mental health ambassador.

“The key is to have someone people can trust and reach out to and talk to,” chief executive Michael Finnegan said.

“Soa is here every day, people can send him an email or call him.”

Strong Minds Strong Mines is a 12-month program that includes Mr Palelei going on-site and addressing staff.

His presentations include confronting revelations that break down the stigma among the company’s workers.

“People think we’re modern day gladiators, but we’re not without issues,” Mr Palelei said.

“I was physically abused as a kid; the next door neighbours used to call the cops and they couldn’t recognise my face.

“One time I was tied to a bed for three days.”

He said his fighting career meant he was often on tour and missed important family events, just like Fifo workers.

“I was trying to provide for my kids and give them a good education,” Mr Palelei said.

“My kids just wanted me to be there, they thought I didn’t care.”

Five years ago, at the pinnacle of his fighting career, Mr Palelei’s thoughts turned to suicide.

“I went to Bunnings and bought a rope; I got a chair and hopped on and sent my girls a text message,” he said.

“Within 10 seconds my daughter sent me a text and that saved my life.

“She didn’t know what I was doing but she just wanted me to take her to a party that night.

“She wanted me to be there.”

Mr Palelei went to a professional counsellor to help address his own problems.

During the past two years he has spoken at 250 schools and will continue doing so while employed by Macmahon.

Putting it together

Mr Ross said Macmahon’s mental health program had multiple elements.

“There is no quick fix, it’s a combination of multiple factors,” he said.

Macmahon uses literature from Rural & Remote Mental Health’s Resource Minds program, which addresses suicide prevention, depression, anxiety and other risk factors.

The mining contractor also uses an app, developed by Mr Palelei, that allows staff to book classes, monitor exercise activity, read-up on healthy diets, and watch motivational videos.

The program includes gym sessions, as it makes an explicit link between physical and mental health.

“It’s the combination of all these elements that make the program different and so successful,” Mr Ross said.

Mr Finnegan said many staff, including office workers, now attended exercise classes for the first time in many years.

“It’s proven to be a lot more powerful than we thought,” he said.

“You can see people are more alert, they’re quicker into the truck, they’re not dragging their feet.”

Mr Finnegan said he was committed to the program over time.

“We don’t just want a burst of activity and back away, it needs a consistent approach,” he said.

“Soa said from the outset, I’m not coming in to tick a box, so we either do it properly or I’m not interested’.”

A different approach

Family-owned contractor AK Evans Earthmoving has found a different way to make a difference.

It has started painting the counterweights on its excavators with the Beyond Blue colour, logo and contact details.

Aaron Evans (left) with CJD Equipment’s James Daniels and some of the newly painted machines. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

It has also committed to donate $1 to Beyond Blue for every hour each machine works, and is encouraging companies that hire the equipment to match this with an additional $1 per hour.

Managing director Aaron Evans said he would initially have four new machines being delivered to the Pilbara over the next month, in addition to eight machines that would be repainted and stickered up.

“This initiative came about due to a few people I know that are struggling at the moment and I was trying to find a different way to get the message out,” Mr Evans said.

“While people are on the job, the machine that we are putting in the middle of these construction jobs is swinging around in front of them all day, they can see the number at the time when its most needed.”

$36m funding

Meanwhile, the federal government has today announced $36 million in funding for 15 national suicide prevention projects, including for East Perth-based Mates in Construction WA, the University of Western Australia and R U OK?

Mates in Construction WA is a charity established in 2008 to reduce suicide within the construction industry.

UWA will receive funding to continue research which ensures suitable support is provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islanders.

The R U OK? grant will fund media and online campaigns aimed at reducing stigma surrounding suicide.

Also out today is data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which reveals 3,128 people took their lives in 2017, up from 2,866 in 2016.

SANE Australia chief executive Jack Heath said the rise in suicides was a step backwards.

“Suicide rates are heading in the wrong direction and we need to change this,” he said. 

“We also know that the risk of suicide is higher for those living with complex mental illness and we still have a long way to go in reducing the stigma associated with complex mental illness and in facilitating access to adequate evidence-based care and support. 

“It is now more important than ever to support people and help them understand that the world is better off with them.”


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