A dusty construction yard in outer Newcastle might not be where you'd expect to find people opening up about their mental health, or suicide.
- Eight Australians die by suicide each day, and it's the leading cause of death in young people
- A new program is training 10,000 community members to recognise the signs someone is in a dark place
- Over the last decade, Australia's deaths from suicide have climbed by about 13 per cent
But at this construction site in the suburb of Sandgate, Kate Mudd is telling the blokes she works with to do just that.
"It is very much a male-dominant area, and a lot of them fear that if you talk about mental health you will be portrayed as being weak."
Ms Mudd is a former excavator operator and truck driver who now works in health and safety at Mullane Construction Plumbing.
In her years in the industry, she's seen how common mental health problems are — and says she's starting to see it strike at ever-younger ages in the apprentices on site.
"Things need to drastically change, because [suicide] is becoming more and more [common]," she says.
"We're not talking about your 25 to 40-year-old age group, you're looking at your 14-year-olds. They're the next up-and-coming generation."
The long-running outfit employs about 300 people, and Ms Mudd has had many of them signed up to a new NSW Health program called Gatekeeper, which trains 10,000 community members to recognise the signs someone is in a dark place.
The hope is that with thousands of people better equipped to notice changes in mood, and to then approach their mates, the entire community can take action.
"I think also being able to approach somebody if you see the signs, it is a delicate matter for anyone and just going up and telling somebody you'll be alright is not the best way," Ms Mudd says.
People who don't yet need acute services often fall through the system's gaps, and the latest data shows just how much demand there is for this kind of intervention.
About half of people who take their lives have had no previous contact with the health system.
'I can be that silver lining'
Ms Mudd has lived with depression for a decade, and fought back from a low that saw her attempt to take her own life.
Watching the confident construction worker sharing a laugh as she does her rounds of the site, it might be hard to imagine she was once in a dark, dark place.
She hopes to provide inspiration.
"So, these people that do suffer every day, I can be that silver lining that there is that light at the end of the tunnel."
The Gatekeeper program has been enthusiastically embraced by the company's senior management.
One of the firm's old hands, Brad Garrard, says he is glad it has changed from the 'hard-arse' industry of old, where it was not wise to show vulnerability.
The industry has been proactive in changing that and Mr Garrard says the culture has completely shifted.
Now he and his colleagues are on the lookout for subtle emotional changes and they want to talk about it.
"It's one of those things where we have to take notice once we start to see changes in people, their behaviours, how they're going into work each day," he says.
"And it's important that we're notified of changes in them, so that if they're not openly talking with their mates at work, we're actually identifying that, and that there might be concerns."
The national picture
Every day, eight Australians die by suicide, and it is the leading cause of death in young people.
Over the last decade, Australia's deaths from suicide have climbed by about 13 per cent — from 10.7 people per 100,000 in 2009 to 12.1 people in 2018.
Men, Indigenous people, and those in regional and remote areas are overrepresented.
That means the number of Australians lost can vary a lot from state to state.
In the NT, 20 people die by suicide for every 100,000 people; in Queensland 16; in Tasmania and Western Australia 15; in SA 12; in NSW and ACT 11; and in Victoria 9.
Each death is deeply traumatic for friends and family, and often, the impacts ricochet throughout the broader community too.
There was some commentary that suicides might increase as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — but in the past 12 months, deaths by suicide actually fell, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Despite concerns over the impact of the pandemic, deaths by suicide fell from 2019 to 2020, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
However, the renewed attention on mental health has seen much-needed resources flow into the sector, and with them new approaches to stop people taking their lives.
A helping hand to get back on track
Where the Gatekeeper program aims to connect with people in the community before they need professional help, another program aims to help people like Jed Field, after they've been in the health system.
Mr Field's life spiralled out of control in year 10.
The teenager from Swansea — about half an hour south of Newcastle — was in hospital regularly after several attempts to take his own life.
"I pretty much went into a hole. Like I was alone.
"I felt insecure about everything I was doing and the people that were around me."
Mr Field has been an early participant in a new NSW Health program called Aftercare which aims to give people six months' support after they leave the emergency room.
People are 20 times more likely to take their own life after an attempt, and many leave hospitals unable to navigate a confusing mental health system or get basic help in putting their lives together.
The program, led by non-clinical staff, seeks to plug that hole in the system.
The staff will visit someone at home and provide support that can be as simple as practical skills to repair finances or navigate a sometimes-convoluted health system.
Mr Field says it turned his life around — and for the first time, he felt wanted.
"I knew that they were there by my side day-in-day-out if I ever needed to talk to someone," he said.
Now 19, Mr Field credits it with turning his life around.
He is going back to school to finish year 10 and hopes to serve his country in the army.
This is his message to people stuck in that low place.
In the federal budget, the government announced $156.8 million to help take the program national.
"We have to talk about suicide, we have to talk about suicide prevention," NSW Mental Health Minister Bronnie Taylor said.
"It's a really difficult thing to talk about and it's important that we do, but we've also got to be brave enough and courageous enough to try these different models."