Why construction is training record numbers of mental health first aiders

Across the construction industry, record numbers of contractors, rental companies and other construction-related firms are working to train staff as mental health first aiders. Lucy Barnard asks what mental health first aiders do - and can the training help to reduce the global construction suicide rate? 

“I didn’t understand what was going on. My sleep patterns were all in disarray. It was a horrible horrible place to be,” says Perry Gibson. “There’s no exaggeration when you hear of people saying they’ve been in bed, and they want to pull the covers over their head and they don’t want to get up and they don’t want to do anything. That’s exactly how I felt.”

For many in the construction industry, Gibson’s story will strike a chord. After being diagnosed with mixed anxiety and depressive disorder, the senior site manager at Multiplex UK suffered a breakdown which led to him taking time off work.

But Gibson’s story doesn’t end there. As he frankly points out in a corporate video, help from support from colleagues, managers and trained professionals enabled him return to full health and continue in his role managing contractors.

Mental health first aiders typically complete a two-day training programme where they learn to identify, understand and respond to others in emotional distress. Photo: Adobe Stock

And Gibson is not the only one. The video, aimed at raising awareness of mental health issues in the construction industry and the resources available to support workers, features two other Multiplex employees who have been through similar ordeals and come out the other end with the help of the company’s support programme.

A key part of this is through a programme of mental health first aid (MHFA) training – a basic training course, similar to a physical first aid course, which works to de-stigmatise conditions such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder, teaches participants how to recognise the signs and symptoms and how to respond appropriately.

“Since we started introducing mental health first aid training and suicide prevention programmes back in 2007, we have definitely seen a reduction in the stigma surrounding mental health,” says Vicki Cockman, head of client and training delivery at MHFA England. “Just by giving people the language to talk about their feelings and the confidence to ask questions we have been able to help raise awareness of the issue of poor mental health and to help people to look after their own mental health.”

What is Mental Health First Aid training?

The idea of mental health first aid training where volunteers typically complete a two-day training session where they learn to identify, understand and respond to others who are in emotional destress is not new.

The courses were created more than twenty years ago in Australia by Tony Jorm, a researcher at the University of Melbourne and his wife, Betty Kitchener, a registered nurse.

Since then, the programme has been licensed by mental health organisations across the globe with course delivered in countries from the USA to Saudi Arabia.

According to the not-for-profit organisation, more than 6 million people have currently been trained in mental health first aid around the world via more than 67,000 accredited mental health first aid instructors delivered in 29 countries.

According to Claire Scrimgeour, health and safety training project manager at Multiplex, since 2017 the company has implemented MHFA training programmes in Australia, the UK and Canada. She herself has trained as a MHFA instructor so the organisation can deliver training in-house, providing staff with MHFA two-day courses as well as a half day mental health awareness course and a one-day MHFA Champion session. Some of the company’s MHFAs working on site have a gold coloured sticker to wear on their hard hats in a similar way to a physical First Aider sticker.

Newly certified mental health first aiders at Skanska offices in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Skanska

And Multiplex is far from the only construction company implementing such a programme. Across the industry large and small contractors, rental companies and other construction-related firms have been quick to implement their own mental health first aid training or to access outside courses.

Contractors which have trained MHFAs also include Bechtel, Hochtief, Lendlease, Balfour Beatty and Kier – and the number keeps growing. Cross industry volunteer group Building Mental Health also provides MHFA training alongside other industry bodies such as the CIOB.

Sweden-headquartered Skanska has been sending its staff on MHFA courses since 2016 and has introduced a green and white mental health first aider sticker for MHFAs.

The company says that so far more than 55% of Skanska’s 3,300 UK employees have either taken a MHFA or a shorter mental health awareness course. In 2022, the company started MHFA training in its US operation.

Rental companies training MHFAs include Sunbelt Rentals, Travis Perkins and Nationwide Platforms (part of the Loxam Group) while mental; health first aid training is also available through the Hire Association Europe.

Why are Mental Health First Aiders needed?

Certainly, the need for introducing mental health support across the construction industry is clear.

A 2023 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the construction industry continues to suffer from one of the highest rates of suicide in the country (56 per 100,000) – second only to mining. In the UK the death toll equates to 34 people per 100,000 – up from 26 seven years previously and more than three times the national average. In Australia, researchers say the suicide rate for men in construction stands at 26.6 per 100,000, compared with 13.2 for men in other occupations.

Last year, Conservative MP Dean Russell even proposed legislation making it a legal requirement in the UK for all businesses to offer mental health first aid training to staff, although the bill failed to win enough support to become law.

Cockman says that each construction company has the same broad aims of improving mental health awareness, reducing the stigma surrounding mental health issues, helping individuals to look after their own mental health and providing a front line, directing people in need to professional medical and counselling services as well as other forms of financial and personal support.

Vicki Cockman, head of client and training delivery at MHFA England. Photo: MHFA England

Nonetheless, she says that it is up to each company to find their best way to achieve these goals.

“Each company is slightly different and will have slightly different needs and a slightly different approach,” she says. “For some, they want to have a certain ratio of trained MHFAs within the company, but elsewhere they might take a different approach and choose to just train managers. All companies are different and each of these approaches and others can work well.”

Costs to run the course vary depending on where you are in the world. In the UK a corporate course training up to 16 individuals in house stands at around £3,600 plus VAT (US$4,578). Firms can also pay for individual training at £325 plus VAT (US$413).

Nonetheless, the stark fact remains that many of the construction firms mentioned have been running MHFA courses for the best part of the last decade – a time when figures show that suicide figures in the industry appear to be rising.

Cockman points out that training more and more MHFAs alone is unlikely to transform psychological wellbeing and that the training should only form part of a wider strategy which also includes removing or reducing the financial, physical and social pressures which leave construction workers particularly exposed to workplace stress in the first place.

“Of course, culture change is incremental and mental health first aid training can only ever be part of a solution,” she says. “The bigger challenge must also be to address the issues of job insecurity, financial strain and loneliness which are some of the biggest contributing factors to poor mental health rates in the construction industry.”

To find out more about accredited mental health first aid providers, click here.

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