The deaths of nine West Australian fly-in fly-out workers who took their own lives will be investigated by a senior mental health clinician.
Mental Health Commissioner Tim Marney told a public hearing on Wednesday that the apparent increase in FIFO suicides over the past 12 months was tragically not surprising.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of people aged 15 to 44 years old, while the average age of a FIFO worker is 38, Mr Marney said.
The FIFO workforce is also 80 percent men, who account for four out of five suicides.
Mr Marney said the FIFO lifestyle also exposed workers to damaging factors including social isolation, the inability to resolve financial and family troubles, shift work, substance abuse and high risk taking behaviour.
‘You visit any mine site, the emphasis on physical health is extreme,’ Mr Marney said.
Mr Marney said there was no need for an inquiry into the causes of FIFO suicides and the services provided to workers because that was already known.
But a case study into the deaths of nine workers, and perhaps more, was needed to better understand how they could have been helped before they took their lives.
A FIFO employee who took his life last year had spoken out about the impact of the lifestyle on mental health just days before he died.
Rhys Connor, 25, died on July 25 last year in his room at the Hope Downs mine site in the Pilbara in Western Australia after suffering depression.
The father-of-one had spoken about the cost of the FIFO lifestyle on his mental health and wellbeing just days earlier, urging those considering FIFO to ‘rethink’ their decision.
Mr Connor spoke about his experience in an interview for a government-funded project on miners released by his family on the anniversary of his death to raise awareness about the risks of isolation and depression faced by FIFO workers.
‘People do struggle up there with depression and at the moment I’m going through it,’ Mr Connor said in the interview.
Mr Connor had a young son, Blaize, but had separated from the child’s mother.
Six weeks before he died he separated from his fiancée.
Mr Connor suggested FIFO made long-term relationships difficult, saying that he would tell his son to work FIFO only ‘if he was single’.
He said that some workers ‘drink every night’ to cope with the lifestyle and named isolation as a key problem for FIFO-workers.
‘You’re in your room every night of the week. You just think about things. You think about your family and what they’re doing now… You miss your family,’ he said.
‘There are people out there what seem to be fine, and deep down they’re not. People have got to realise that everyone’s not OK.’
Mr Connor’s parents, Peter and Anita Miller said mining companies need to do more to look after their employees.
‘Everything’s not going OK for people onsite, there’s a huge focus on safety, but there needs to be more focus on mental wellbeing,’ Ms Miller told Daily Mail Australia.
While she said that she does not blame FIFO for her son’s death, she said the lifestyle does present particular mental health challenges.
‘It’s long sections away from family, missing out on major family events.’
Rhys typically worked three or four weeks onsite followed by one week off.
‘That’s a long time away when you’ve got a child,’ said Ms Miller. ‘You’re missing major developments.
‘We’ve suffered hugely. Our son was just a great normal everyday guy… and bang he’s dead. It’s just too sad,’ she said.
Alan Woodward, Executive Directive of Lifeline Research Foundation, conducted a study of mental health among 900 FIFO workers last year.
He found that while FIFO workers did not experience a higher rate of mental health issues compared to the rest of Western Australian citizens, they did experience specific hardships relating to mental health.
‘A key concern for us out of that study was often the attitude among the workforce that it was somehow soft to say that you’re having troubles,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘It was summed up in a phrase from one our interviews that “if you were having troubles in your life, you just had to suck it up princess”. That was a very unhelpful attitude, that can prevent people from seeking help.’
The Millers are now raising awareness of the mental health problems facing FIFO workers.
Ms Miller and Rhys’s sister Teagan are working with zero2hero, a suicide prevention charity, and Mr Miller recently visited Barrow Island workers to speak about mental health issues.
‘[Rhys] was just a normal larrikin young guy who loved life,’ said Ms Miller. ‘He was a water polo player, he had lots of friends. He was just a nice guy and he was a selfless person.
‘We can’t change what’s happened in our case, but maybe we can change what happens in someone else’s case.
This article first appeared on ‘Daily Mail – Australia’ on 14 August 2014.