A shortage of work in the Illawarra has driven many young people to take on fly-in, fly-out jobs as a last resort. But for some, the toll on their mental health is too great, reports CYDONEE MARDON.
A young fly-in, fly-out worker who took his own life left a heartbreaking suicide note showing just how hard the transient lifestyle can be for people with mental health issues.
"People don't know what it's like to work FIFO and have depression and I've decided to end my life," said 25-year-old Rhys Connor, who died in his room in a Pilbara mine site camp.
Mr Connor's parents released details of the suicide letter 12 months after his death to raise awareness about the mental health problems plaguing the workforce.
It is understood Mr Connor was one of nine FIFO workers who took their own lives in the past 12 months.
''Money’s not everything, if you’re not happy, I wouldn’t even bother going.''
West Australian Premier Colin Barnett said his government would decide next week whether to launch a parliamentary inquiry into a spate of FIFO worker deaths.
WA Mental Health Commissioner Tim Marney said he would appoint a senior clinician to investigate the deaths but there was no need for an inquiry into the causes of FIFO suicides and the services provided to workers because that was already known.
Illawarra workers are among thousands who accept jobs on fly-in, fly-out rosters around the country and while many thrive, others struggle with the isolation.
A report on the mental health of FIFO and drive-in, drive-out workers conducted by Lifeline WA has found that although there is support available, workers are often reluctant to use it.
The anonymous online survey of 924 workers showed a higher prevalence of psychological distress among FIFO workers, compared with the general population.
The report's author recommends organisations address the "suck it up princess culture and build policies and services from the ground up to address the real mental health needs of workers".
Just days before his death, Mr Connor said workers were struggling with depression, relationship breakdowns and boredom.
He said anyone contemplating FIFO work should "have a good think about it".
"Money's not everything, if you're not happy, I wouldn't even bother going," he said.
Mr Connor's father, Peter Miller, told the Mercury this week that the industry needed to take mental illness seriously.
"After a previous bout with depression while doing FIFO, Rhys sought help from the mental health system. He was let down," Mr Miller said.
"He went back to FIFO to finish a job and was then going to try again to seek more professional help.
"Rhys was scared he might lose his job if he spoke to anybody on site, as like most other workers ... they do not trust being able to talk to anybody on site."
Mr Miller is calling for the industry to put a system in place to "assure workers they're not going to lose their jobs if they come forward".
"If they had something where people were confident they weren't going to lose their job if they open their mouth people might start saying something. There's no trust."
Nicole Ashby, wife of a FIFO worker in WA, has set up a support network for parents and partners to come together and share their experiences.
"With all the reporting going on around mental health, suicide and FIFO, we are noticing families are talking about it, it's bringing awareness so we think that's definitely a good thing," Ms Ashby said.
"If you have a predisposition and then you do FIFO rosters, where you are away from home longer than you are home, then it is certainly going to amplify those pre-existing issues.
"That type of work is not for everyone but it can work brilliantly.
"You need to be aware and have an understanding of what the lifestyle will be like, how it can impact you."
In response to the large contingent of FIFO workers coming from the Illawarra, FIFO Families has launched a support group in Wollongong.
CFMEU organiser Mick Lane said FIFO work was a choice, but many Illawarra workers did it because of the shortage of jobs in the region.
"For a lot of these blokes, this kind of work is their last resort," he said.
"Times are particularly tough in the Illawarra so people take work where they can find it."
Conditions were tough, Mr Lane said.
"It is renowned for its very, very onerous set of conditions after a while.
"If you can survive six or 12 months, you are probably doing fairly well. It's hard yards, long hours."
Mr Lane said the recent federal government approval of a multibillion-dollar mining project could spike the interest of people in the Illawarra looking for FIFO work.
Ms Ashby said companies were embracing change and taking steps towards improving services for mental health. FIFO Families conducted workshops with couples considering or already taking part in FIFO work and companies had been very receptive, she said.
"We are seeing companies shift. They know how important this is and they are embracing this help," Ms Ashby said.
"If we can get people going into this with their eyes wide open and have a really good understanding, then it's a win-win for workers, their partners and the company."
- Illawarra families looking for a social network and support from other FIFO workers can email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit fifofamilies.com.au.
If you are experiencing depression or are suicidal, or know someone who is, help is available. Lifeline: 131144, Beyond Blue: 1300224636.