Suicide prevention group pleads for Govt funding for 'vulnerable workforce'

Rebecca Moore
Source: 1News

The Government says it wants to do things "differently" to turn around New Zealand's shocking suicide statistics, but one shovel-ready group says they're crying out for funding to expand the lifesaving work they're doing.

Around 18 months ago, Mates in Construction was founded. It's an organisation dedicated to fighting the high rates of suicide and helping those in the industry speak up about their struggles.

The organisation claims there is nearly one death every week in the construction sector, which had a "vulnerable workforce" made up mostly of men with a lot of financial pressure, long hours and a "harden up" culture.

But Mates in Construction is trying to shake up the industry by engaging with worksites about mental health, offering support, providing training and even helping in the aftermath of a death.

Demand is high from the Far North to Deep South of New Zealand, with good reception to the services they offer, chief executive Victoria McArthur told 1 NEWS.

But with lots of growing interest, she says they're issuing a plea to the Government for $2 million funding so their team can travel out to the regions and offer their free-services to workers.

"All we need now is some backing," she said.

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"We have been looking for a sustainable funding stream."

Speaking about the work the Government has been doing on suicide prevention and mental health, Health Minister Andrew Little last week told Breakfast : "We are trying stuff that's new, we are trying stuff that's different."

He stood by the Government's work in mental health after years of underinvestment from previous governments.

However, McArthur said if they're looking to do things differently and focus on suicide prevention, Mates in Construction is ready and waiting.

"We want the Government to step up and support 200,000 workers," she said, adding that it would also benefit their families too.

"We need services out there for people in New Zealand and they're looking at new and different ways to approach this."

Richie Hepi, is a field officer for the organisation and has been since it's inception in 2019.

"It's been a tough journey, a long journey and it's only been 18 months," he said.

"We just hope they [the Government] can put their hands in their pockets. We're not asking for a lot."

Hepi's worked as a chippy as well as in youth support, but the self-described "suicide survivor" says saving lives is why he turned to this line of work.

"It's not an easy gig, but it's crucial."

Hepi last week told 1 NEWS he'd saved three lives in the past week, including one young man who called him right before a suicide attempt while his work mates were looking for him.

"I sit back and think 'this is why I'm here'," he said.

"My job is to encourage and talk about these issues.

"It's change the environment, fabrics and how they see mental health."

Hepi said he's become a trusted name and always has his phone on.

That dedication means Mates in Construction now gets approached by companies all over the country, and they want to help.

"We always say suicide doesn't discriminate, it doesn't care who you are.

"It's a community approach. What we do is boots on the ground, then follow up and stay with them all the time."

Hepi said staff take on a "case" and stick with them, taking calls any day, any time.

"We need more field officers and case managers," he said, adding each team member used to manage five or six cases but now juggle 45 to 50 cases.

"The last few weeks have been so full."

Today Health Minister Andrew Little told 1 NEWS: “I’ve met recently with Mates in Construction they look like they’re doing good work.

"They have said that their work is in the process of being evaluated. I’ve asked to see the results of that evaluation when it comes through.

“On the issue of who should fund their work, currently they are funded by the construction sector itself.

"They are a big employer of workers in New Zealand because the construction sector has grown hugely and continues to grow.

"It is responsible for employers in that sector, as part of looking after the wellbeing of their workforces, to make sure that their workers are supported in a variety of ways including what they do in the Mates in Construction work. That should continue.”