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Roads & Infrastructure Magazine speaks to Jorgen Gullestrup about his journey from being a high school drop-out to a founder of lifesaving organisation MATES in Construction.

At the age of 23, with a pregnant wife and speaking hardly any English, Jorgen Gullestrup moved from Denmark to Queensland.

He was an apprentice plumber who had dropped out of school and had battled with clinical depression for six years. During that time, he was hospitalised after several suicide attempts. To reinvent himself in a new country, Mr. Gullestrup’s employer encouraged him to make the move to Australia, which he did in 1988.

His mother had given him a piece of advice that had stayed with him for his entire life, “one day, they’re going to discover who you really are.”

Today, 30 years later, he has completed his Masters of Sociology, won a Churchill Fellowship and has been awarded a LiFE Award from Suicide Prevention Australia for his work in the lifesaving suicide prevention program, MATES (Men Actively Talking to Each other on Sites) in Construction.

Roads & Infrastructure Australia talks with Mr. Gullestrup about his personal journey that lead him to where he is today.

One of the first things Mr. Gullestrup did when he arrived in Australia was to build as many connections with people around him, a difficult task for someone who only knew a few words of the local language and nothing about cricket.

“One of the most natural things to do when moving to a new culture is to find people that you can relate to. When we first moved here we would pick up stray Danes in the supermarket; if they spoke Danish they were our friends,” he says.

“When you first move to a new country, it’s such a different culture – I didn’t understand, and it took me many years to learn. We would try to connect with people from work socially and eventually we started talking about things like food and cooking.”

While attending night school to get his qualifications, he worked as a roof plumber before becoming a union delegate in 1992 for the Workers Health Centre and Workers Health Action Group.

He began to work his way up, becoming the State Secretary of the plumbers union in 2001, however, over this time, he had lost several union members to suicide.

“In one particular case, a man in his mid-forties had died by suicide. I went to his family with financial support we had been able to gather and asked what could the union do for them. His widow said to me she wasn’t interested in money and asked who was going to be the father for their three daughters?” he says.

It was at that point he realised it could have been his family in that situation if he had not been able to get the support he needed.

Mr. Gullestrup says after that experience there was more the construction and trade industry could do with its resources to help to prevent these suicides. His experience wasn’t unique, with a number of different union officials telling him they had seen the problem too, but were waiting for someone else to do something about it.

“We worked out that somebody was us,” Mr. Gullestrup says.

Around the same time, the Howard Government had begun its Cole Royal Commission, aimed at unearthing corruption in trade unions. With a chance to use the spotlight. Mr. Gullestrup took a list of those who had died in the industry just 12 months before the commission.

Out of the 41 death claims paid by the Building Employees Redundancy Fund, 17 appeared to be suicide.

It also highlighted that for every person that had died by suicide, 2.4 more would have left the industry due to total permanent disability as a result of failed suicide attempts.

Research was undertaken by Griffith University to investigate the actual numbers for the industry. It took two years to complete and gave Mr. Gullestrup the information he needed to back up what he already knew anecdotally.

The Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention report, found suicide rates within the construction industry were higher than the average for Australian men, being 2.38 per cent more common than men working in other jobs.

The report showed the average suicide rate of 3000 people per year is twice the number of people who die in road accidents and is the leading cause of death for men between 15 to 44, with these rates higher again for those in the youth category.

Mr. Gullestrup says the construction industry often has long working hours, low job security and people are often working far away from home, which, combined with a very masculine culture and the prevalence of alcohol, are risk factors.

“One of the things we know about suicide is the more connected you are to your family, your friends or your work mates, the less likely you are to die by suicide,” he says.

“When you think about what happens with young workers, they tend to connect through sporting groups and social clubs. That’s much harder when you work in an industry where you work six days a week.

“Young workers may then find that the only connection they can find is at the pub, which comes with a whole other host of issues, taking away the protective factor and introducing a risk factor,” he adds.

With the support behind him, Mr. Gullestrup began to build MATES in Construction in 2008 with retired school principal John Brady and young social worker and former SAS soldier Michael Stubley. To help his own understanding, he began a suicide prevention course. This is where he says the penny dropped.

“If I could do a two-day course and feel comfortable and capable of changing somebody’s life as just a plumber, then we have more than 200,000 workers in Queensland who could do exactly the same. We could make a real difference,” Mr. Gullestrup says.

Because of the stigma around mental health when the program first started, it took a lot to get it off the ground.

To find out why there was so much resistance, Mr. Gullestrup sat down with a CEO for a major construction company and asked to have him adopt the program. This is where he learned the program was shining a light on something people didn’t want to acknowledge.

“I remember him saying that construction is all about risk management, so you don’t import a new risk to your site. If MATES in Construction wasn’t the right program, then there would be a new problem on the site that would need to be handled,” he says.

“I couldn’t thank him enough because it showed us we were on the right track in terms of what we had to do: frame suicide as a risk.”

The MATES in Construction team then went out and tried to reach workers in the industry who were looking to make a difference. The program offers integrated support and training to provide regular workers with the skills to offer support to those struggling, with further training available to help keep people in crisis safe and connect them with professional help.

The program is based around the idea that suicide is everyone’s business, not just that of the mental health professionals.

Mr. Gullestrup says just about all of the volunteers that signed up to become connectors had a lived experience with suicide.

“They’re not doing it because they want another course on their CV, they’re doing it because they might have lost someone to suicide or even struggled with mental health themselves,” he adds.

As projects finish, those workers that have been trained can then go to new worksites where they connect with their co-workers and help raise awareness to ensure something is done about suicide on the job site.

This ground level approach meant the program could spread almost virally and avoid being stonewalled by upper management. It soon expanded from a Brisbane-only program to the Gold Coast, then into Townsville and nationally into New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia.

The program has now reached more than 130,000 workers over the past decade, with more than 10,000 construction workers trained to recognise the very small red flags and how to respond to them before it is too late. In Queensland alone, more than 70,000 workers have now joined the program, turning around the lives of more than 5000 at-risk workers and preventing innumerable suicides. The program has also been implemented on hundreds of sites, including the majority of Hamilton Reach and Mater Children’s hospitals.

In the long term, Mr. Gullestrup hopes that one day there is no need for an organisation like MATES in Construction, with the program instead becoming a standard way of doing things.

“At the end of the day, I’m a Queensland Plumber. I just want to make a difference for the people like me.”

Lifeline: 13 11 14 –

MATES in Construction Helpline: 1300 642 111 –

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