How to talk them out of it

By Denise Cullen,

WITH about 2000 Australians committing suicide each year, the need to halt this epidemic is both urgent and immense.

Jobs in suicide prevention reach out to people most at risk, and those working on the front line are increasingly adopting a more proactive stance. Tony Holland has been at the helm of the OzHelp Foundation for only a couple of months but he is already spearheading its expansion. The foundation is an early intervention work-based suicide prevention and social capacity building program targeted at workers in the construction, building and mining industries. ‘‘Many health promotion strategies are passive and reactive, waiting for people to make a decision to seek support,’’ Holland explains.

‘‘The OzHelp model seeks to engage with people where they are at, to build relationships and provide the support that people need when they need it.’’ The foundation was set up in the ACT in 2001, with three people working out of a garage; it now has 22 staff, including several in the Northern Territory and Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

‘‘In the next 12 months, as a response to federal government initiatives, we hope that OzHelp will continue to grow into other states, and as many as three new positions may be created to facilitate this growth,’’ Holland says. ‘‘We proactively seek to engage people in conversations at worksites, offices, mine sites and other locations,’’ he explains. ‘‘We can then assist people through intervening and educating them before they are at risk of self-harm.

‘‘We are seen and heard and known in the building industry and people in construction trust us to be there for them.’’

The OzHelp Foundation came about after the deaths by suicide of three construction industry apprentices in 2000.

The mother of one of these apprentices tenaciously lobbied the industry for action to address the importance of intervention in order to prevent further such tragedies.

A collaboration between the ACT branches of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the Master Builders Association led to the formation of the OzHelp Foundation. The rate of suicides in these industries remains up to four times the national average.

Holland acknowledges that working in this area can be confronting. ‘‘It’s a tough topic to talk about … and not everyone will want to talk, even when we have good things to provide them,’’ he points out.

‘‘But in terms of rewards, it’s very important work to be doing and we make a difference in individuals’ lives — it’s great to hear the good stories from people we’ve helped.’’

New guidelines released by the Australian Press Council last month lifted the taboo against reporting suicide and helped prompt discussion within the community. Holland says that open and honest conversations encourage people to seek help.

‘‘This ensures that the stigma around discussing how they feel is minimised,’’ he says. ‘‘Generally, if conversations around the topic are conducted in a respectful and courteous manner, which leads to a person at risk receiving assistance by professionals and connection with their support networks, this is of more benefit to the individual and to whole communities.’’

Michael Hawke, a service coordinator with Anglicare in South Australia, which is seeking a project officer for its Living Beyond Suicide program, agrees. However, he points out that caution still needs to be exercised around sensationalising the issue through revealing specific suicide methods or personal details regarding the deceased.

‘‘Vulnerable people in the community may be further distressed by such information, which may be a catalyst for them to make an attempt on their own life,’’ he says. Living Beyond Suicide is a South Australia-based program dedicated to supporting those who are bereaved through suicide. It supports families as well as communities following a suicide.

‘‘Those that are bereaved through suicide are at a higher risk of suicide than the general population, and so the work that the service does is critically important for suicide prevention as well,’’ says Hawke.

‘‘Through funding from the Department of Health and Ageing and a partnership with SA Police, the service has been able to reach hundreds of families across our state.’’