I'm reading
Jeremy Forbes cares about tradies
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Jeremy Forbes cares about tradies
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Jeremy Forbes cares about tradies
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
25 November 2015

Jeremy Forbes cares about tradies

Interview by Daniel Teitelbaum
Photography by Jane Lucas

Daniel Teitelbaum on Jeremy Forbes

A lot of tradies have a hard time of it. Some commit suicide and many more think about it far too often. In Australian culture, the usual cure for feeling the brunt of unmanageable debt and an unrelenting workload is to tell yourself or others: “harden the fuck up.” Which isn’t always fair enough, partly because it’s not a long-term solution.

The reasons for suicide are complex and personal, but in many cases they’re to do with very practical problems: unpayable bills and a fluctuating income, difficult working conditions and a culture that lacks supportive communication or permission to admit you’re finding things tough.

Jeremy Forbes has thought about suicide.

He’s lived and worked as a tradie in Victoria for over 20 years. Knowing what tradies go through, and having had a handful of friends end their lives, he started HALT: Hope Assistance Local Tradies. Through HALT, Jeremy shows up to local hardware stores with a small crew of volunteers to put on an early breakfast for the tradesmen in the area. The only expectation is an egg and bacon roll, but what they get is an opportunity to talk, if they want, and a small bag with some information about mental health issues and where to seek help.

I spoke to Jeremy at The DO Lectures in Australia in May 2013, after just two successful HALT brekkies, and caught up with him again, 21 brekkies later, in July 2015.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

DANIEL TEITELBAUM: Why did you become a tradie?

JEREMY FORBES: I had a really jumbled family. I had a stepfamily, and I struggled a bit as a teenager, didn’t do very well at school. My father, who I hadn’t seen in 18 years, rang me up during my HSC to tell me he was dying. That really threw me because I didn’t know him. He actually is a painter and decorator himself. But we’ve had no linkage or anything in common really.

I finished Year 12 but I didn’t get the marks I wanted, so I got a bit lost. I did a pre-apprenticeship which covers ten different trades, giving you a chance to find what you would like to do. I picked painting. Then I went out and found my own apprenticeship, started working the big building sites in Melbourne. Twenty-two years later, I haven’t been able to leave the industry.

Why are you locked in?

Complacency. I think complacency is the moral and social cancer of the 21st century. The money is good. You work from 7:30’til 4 in the afternoon—it’s pretty easy, but it’s physically hard and it can be mind-numbing. I was in a small country town, I knew a lot of people and there was work out there. There’s always work for tradies.

So recognising your own complacency, why are you still complacent?

It eats into you and gets into your system I think. I felt I really wanted to go back and do some further study, but my first wife didn’t think that was a good idea. So I didn’t do it. Instead I used to drink lots. And just paint. Play footy. And there are those frustrations bubbling underneath the surface for a long time, until I finally got to a stage where I walked out of the marriage.

In those five years since, I have achieved so much that I wanted to do that I hadn’t done because of that complacency. I really battled not liking the building industry, not liking the physical nature of it, the sun, chasing money. I’d also watched workmates of mine take their own lives. It just seemed there were so many of them that it became acceptable.

I think in one year of our crew of 15, we lost seven.

Wow.

And then I moved to Castlemaine. In the last couple of years, there have been a few more suicides. One tradie I knew well, Pete, took his own life, and I’d seen him a couple of weeks beforehand. He was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was a very insular and morose character. We’d had a 10-minute conversation, which was big for him. When he took his own life, I looked back and thought, Was that why he was happy? And at his funeral you’re looking around at all the other tradies going, “Who’s next?” Then I was like, “We should not be thinking like this. This is not right.”

Why were these tradies taking their lives?

One found out his legs would need to be amputated. Instead, he put a gun in his mouth. It’s also finance. As an apprentice you don’t learn how to balance your finances. You don’t do budgets; you don’t learn how to do quotes. They really just throw you out there as an apprentice. Credit is easy to access and you can run up huge amounts of debt.

Did you ever consider taking your own life?

Yeah. I think I had clown syndrome where I was the happy guy at parties, you know, having a few beers and laughs. But then I’d get home and I’d just be on the computer and sad and down and feeling lethargic. I never got close, but I have thought about it.

Why hide it?

I was playing footy at the time. I would never think to tell my footy mates that. There was no way. I didn’t have any close friends. I didn’t think it was the done thing to talk about that stuff. So I just went along with it.

I didn’t want anyone to know I was struggling. That just wasn’t part of the culture.

So you’ve thought about it, and a lot of these other tradies thought about it. But then there was a kind of tipping point that happened?

[Sighs]. Tipping point. Yeah. I reckon there’s a whole story in that. There’s lots of tipping points in life. I had a challenging childhood. I wasn’t close to my mother or my father. I’ve had a few stepfathers as well. I was very close to my grandfather. So I think it was my nan and pop, their resilience and strength and their warmth and energy, and my love for them, that got me through it. I haven’t really thought about this much until now. But I think that was a big part of it. I don’t know if there’s a switch that suddenly gets flicked on or off to reach the point where you do take your own life. I’m not sure.

And so now you’re working to help people pull themselves out of those places.

Yes. With HALT, an acronym for Hope, Assistance, Local, Tradies. I had a phone call after Pete died from my friend Catherine Pilgrim, who became my co-founder. She said she really wanted to do something for his family. I said, “Why don’t we do something for the community?”.

Tradies cover all sections of the community, so it doesn’t matter if you’re right-wing, left-wing, conservative, progressive, hippie, fascist, bogan, whatever. They sort of step across the different areas of the community. We talked to a couple of people about doing something proactive for tradies to help with their mental health and wellbeing. We said, “Let’s do something on a Tuesday morning, ‘cause I really struggle on Tuesdays.” Monday you have stuff to talk about with what happened on the weekend. Wednesday is hump day, middle of the week. Thursday is almost there, Friday’s there. So…

So Tuesday! [Laughs].

So Tuesday was right for me. We decided not to do something at night that involved alcohol, we’d do something in the morning to really get fired up for the day. So we decided to have brekky. We called it the “Save your Bacon Brekky”. I approached a local hardware store and Rotary, and they were more than happy to jump on board.

Once you start having conversations, the community gets involved and opens up and they start talking about it.

So HALT is about any community in Australia being able to do this for virtually no money. It cost me nothing. I put in a little of my own money, not much though, to help buy some bags and stickers. The eggs and bacon and coffee were donated. There was information for the tradies about where to go if they or their friends are suffering. So it’s not just about them, it’s about them taking interest in their mates. We had a hundred tradies turn up. We were pretty happy with that. We’d also connected with a local community health organisation. They heard about it in Bendigo, so we did it again there. Same model, same principle. And we had 250 tradies turn up to that.

Wow.

It resonated through the community. I thought early on, I’d love for this to go national. But I’m also pragmatic and a realist and know it takes time and energy.

When the tradies rock up, what do they think?

I said it’s about raising awareness of mental health, but it’s also supporting each other. No one has to talk about anything. They can rock up, get their egg and bacon roll, their coffee and their HALT bag of goodies and go. Some tradies think there’s an expectation to talk to someone. Or if they’re seen there it’s a sign they suffer from mental health issues. So there are some negatives around the perception of HALT. And mental health in general.

Those are the challenges.

Yeah. And that’s fine. There are always going to be challenges. And it’ll take us a few years to break through. If we have 250 tradies, I’d like to get 300. ‘Cause the 250 say to a few of their mates: “It was fine, man. It was fine! We went and got our egg and bacon and our HALT bag and a coffee and we left.” Most of them actually stick around, start talking. ‘Cause we’ve got a small team of people, volunteers that just go around and talk about HALT. And we have people from Lifeline and some other community health organisations.

Yeah, right.

So there’s that manifesting of an idea and shared consciousness—for both sides, because the Lifeline guys might go: “Oh we just assumed that every tradie was rich! And every tradie was loaded, ‘cause they drive around with jet skis.” There’s an upper bogan working class, whatever it is. And I’m like, “No! Twenty years and I still struggle week to week.” And my stepfather is heading towards 60 and he still struggles. He’s a plumber. Week to week. A lot of them do. So anyway there’s a bit of a trepidation around what’s expected of them at the start—even if I tell them, “There are no expectations.”

You have a great story about when you were playing footy and working in the theatre.

Oh! Yeah, great! I had moved from Melbourne to Castlemaine where my family were, and I used to play footy in Melbourne so I got picked up pretty quickly in Castlemaine to play for a team called Campbell’s Creek. I played there for 10 years. My mum and brother and sister were involved in a production of The Wizard of Oz. And I hadn’t done any theatre for 10 years because I was in Melbourne.

Mum said, “The guy who’s playing the Lion is ill. Do you want to audition?” So I auditioned and I got the part. And I’m also a Leo. I’m a bit of an out-there figure. I used to have long hair and a bit of a beard. Bit of a lion’s mane. But when I was back playing footy the guys at the footy club struggled with the fact I also did theatre. There was that assumption that I was gay, “a poof.” And I was called that constantly by my own teammates. So it was trying to find that balance of ignoring them and correcting them.
[pq]They’d be like, “Where’s your tutu Forbesy?” And I’m like, “Well, a tutu’s ballet.”[/pq]

[Laughs].

“I don’t do ballet, I do theatre.” And then they go, “Oh, you poof, you wear makeup.” And I’d say, “Yeah I’m proud of that!” And they got a bit jealous ‘cause I talk to their girlfriends about how I apply eye make-up. I didn’t care, and they started to understand that regardless of that I would still turn up to training and play footy.

There was one instance of another show that I did, maybe Oliver or Oklahoma, where I’d play footy from say two ‘til five in the afternoon and then if I was okay, I’d go to a performance at six o’clock. Have a couple of beers in the bar at the footy club and then drive into the town and do that.

One afternoon where I’d been crunched a couple of times, I was pretty sore. And all I thought was, Oh no. What’s going to happen if I can’t perform? I was standing waiting for a mark and I saw a big guy—I don’t know if he played for Carisbrook or Royal Park­—coming at me, and I couldn’t move, and suddenly a mate of mine threw himself in front of me and this guy crunched him! It reverberated, everyone heard it. And I lent over to my mate, ‘cause I took the mark in the end, and kicked a goal and it sort of triggered a few goals. We won. And I went down, picked him up, and he was groggy. And I said, “Mate! That was so courageous.” And he looked up at me and said, “I had to man. My girlfriend told me I had to look after you because we’re coming to see your show tonight!”

[Laughs]. What do you think it is to be a man?

Ah! Being a man is being happy in yourself. It’s about having that compassion. I think a man can be multi-layered, a man can be tough but also warm and caring and loving.

A man stands up for what he believes in no matter what the situation is. He’s courteous.

Who have been some role models in your life?

My grandmother’s probably the most important woman in my life. Always has been, always will be.

There’s a connection with my grandmother that goes beyond life. She’s not my real grandmother so there’s a connection there that’s not blood. But a few of the times that I’ve thought about taking my life, it’s been instances of going, “If Nan dies, I want to die as well.” I’m very protective of her, maybe in a previous life she would have been the Queen and me her bodyguard. She’s also protected me. So there’s a real massively strong bond there. And she’s still alive, she’s got dementia now so she doesn’t know who I am, which is tough. But yeah there have been instances where she’s been really ill and I’ve thought, If she goes, I need to go with her on that next journey.

How did that develop?

Obviously we spent a lot of time together. I had my mother, and it was just her and I for a few years. And then she met a Greek guy and I had a Greek step-family for a long time. And I experienced a bit of bullying and harassment from cousins, ‘cause I was an Aussie. And then that broke down and I’ve had a couple of other step-fathers since. Then my natural father came back. So I haven’t had a lot of positive role models. I’ve struggled with fatherly role models. But my grandmother’s been a constant. She’s been there. She’s always had a positive outlook on life. Even though she probably wasn’t content and happy.

A lot of my new mates are also great role models. Because they are who they are and they’re confident in themselves and they’re pretty much at peace with themselves, compared to, I think, a lot of my older mates in that footy culture who aren’t necessarily happy or content with their own lives and couldn’t talk about it. These guys can. Now I’m in such a happy spot and content that I’ve got half a dozen close mates I could talk to.

Why is talking important?

For a sounding board. So I don’t necessarily need every answer from them. But I like to be able to hear myself say it and bounce back off them. And I do trust them. I trust their judgement and their knowledge.

You’re right, for that extra input. To chat through the complexity you might be struggling with.

Rather than turn to drugs and alcohol. “I’m not going to talk but I’m going to have a few beers, I’ll be happy, that’ll be fine. That’ll suppress any demons or any negativity.” That whole sad thing where guys are like, “I woke up this morning and I was still on the couch and a couple of beers were there!”

That’s what they talk about?

Yeah! It’s a rite of passage. There are still tradies on building sites that are racist and sexist. They show pictures of naked selfies. Of women. And there’s still ingrained sexism, racism, misogynistic ideas and concepts that are still there for sure.

Is that all for show?

I think they are expectations. You have the pack mentality of, “This is what everyone else does,” you know, “Let’s beat up and bully and harass the apprentice because it happened to me when I was an apprentice.” And so that’s what you do. That’s just part of the culture. So we’ll continue to keep doing that.

We were bullied so we’ll bully the next person because that’s what’s expected of us.

Mental health for men is so hard to tackle. But it’s the most important thing because capable, healthy men make the world a better place.

You put it really well. It’s a point I also like making—that this would be harder if it was potentially a suit coming from Melbourne saying to these tradies: “Ah, come to the local hall and I’ll talk about this!” No fucking way. There’d be no chance. And it’s like anything, it has to come from someone with the same passion, it has to be a tradie who has that shared experience.

I was just talking to a guy at the Do Lectures about domestic violence. And the crimes that divorced fathers commit. And he wants to get a program similar to HALT, which is very humbling, for divorced fathers. There doesn’t seem to be the support services there, and there are a lot of divorced fathers out there. It’s the financial stress. They’re going out and making more money but that money’s now going to their ex-wife and their kids who he never sees, and then he hits the bottle more. All these issues that we can explore, and we can explore them together.

Definitely. Everybody makes it a little easier for everybody else by chipping away at the big problem.

Yeah, we’re not-for-profit. There’s no making money for shareholders. I’m just doing this because I feel there’s a need for it and seems to resonate and work. I also love history by the way. I watch documentary after documentary. My dad would just sit me down and say, “Watch this.”

Great! Good on your dad. Should be more dads like that. You haven’t got kids yet?

Nah. I haven’t got any kids and I recently got the snip as well.

That’s a tough choice, to not have children. Would you ever think of adopting a kid?

My wife’s just turned 42. I’m 40. Probably not. Legacy has been a big word bandied about this weekend and I think HALT will be my legacy. When I die, I die. I don’t fear death. I’m in a really good spot where I don’t fear it at all. Pain doesn’t bother me. So when I go, I go. I have my own beliefs about before and after life. But for me this is the legacy.

So that makes you a bit more comfortable with your own death?

Yeah! For sure. It doesn’t bother me stopping the lineage with me. And when I go, I go. I can’t do much about it!

I hope you hang around for a bit!

Oh don’t worry, I plan to hang around!

[Two years later].

Last time we spoke it was May 2013. What’s happened to HALT in the last two years?

It’s been a huge two years. When we spoke, I had done two breakfasts and I wasn’t sure where it was going to go from there. Since then we’ve been picked up by Bendigo Community Health Service, which is a charity, and I’ve spent the last 14 months with them. I think we’re up to 23 brekkies now around Victoria and into southern New South Wales. It’s just going right off, it’s very satisfying.

Great. Why? What’s happening at these brekkies that makes it satisfying?

There’s obviously a lot of stigma attached to mental health in the building industry, that real tough Aussie culture. It’s the “Let’s not talk about it” and “She’ll be all right, mate” attitude which I’ve struggled and lived with for 20 years. HALT events seem to work because it’s actually in the car park of a hardware store where tradies feel comfortable, it’s all free and there are no expectations. We had, I think, 300 at Wagga Wagga, we had 20 guys at St Ives hang around talking for an hour and a half. It’s been awesome.

What spurred you on at the start was not just the hardship that you’d experienced but also the suicides in the communities. Are you seeing that change at all?

It’s hard to notice that change. HALT gives them the opportunity to talk and the information if they need it. It’s hard to actually recognise early intervention and prevention. That being the case, we recently did a brekkie for the council depot workers in Castlemaine—the guys that do the roads, gardens, and maintenance, that crew. They were really open and apparently they had a slight change of culture after that one brekkie.

The feedback about a month later was that guys are actually starting to talk more with their mates. It sounds simple to some but in the building industry, that’s what you want. They struggle to know how to talk to their mates. They worry that if they say something they’ll be judged for it.

You think, Okay, I want to talk to my mate because he’s joking about killing himself, but how do I have that conversation. What will he think, where do I do it? Do I take him out for a beer? Do I take him out for coffee? We only work together.

Guys get a bit unsure of how to relate to each other in that way. They can talk about other stuff: food and women and beer, but they can't talk about their feelings, so they suppress it. They're told to keep it down.

In over 20 events we’ve seen about 2000 tradies come to the events. We’ve also done a couple of brekkies at Bendigo TAFE. I think it’s really important to start to seep through into the youth, the young apprentices, so we’re getting into TAFEs and talking to the students about their mental health.

How do you feel two years later?

It’s a mixture of pride and respect. Pride and respect that these guys feel that they can come and speak to me and that they trust me. It’s almost like a nervous excitement.

What are your plans for funding in the future?

I think it’ll be a multi-disciplined approach. We want HALT to become a social enterprise. The financial side of things could come from individuals and private donations. And, hopefully, the building companies, the mum and dad building companies, the hardware stores and businesses in town.

We need multiple avenues and streams of funding to make this work. It can be community grants. It can be councils paying for a brekkie for their workers. It can be TAFEs. It can be universities. We’re almost there. It’s taken eighteen months but we’re almost there and it’s an exciting journey.

I’m going to the National Suicide Prevention Conference in Hobart and meeting some incredible, passionate, innovative and inspiring people in communities. It’s empowering to know there’s lots of things happening out there.

Absolutely. It’s a great initiative. You made it continue and grow. That’s fantastic.

I’ve also learned how to manage myself.

Yeah?

Yeah, and not got burned out. I’ve got some great support at Bendigo Community Health Services. I’ve got my media manager who tries to keep me under check, and I’ve got a really good bunch of mates.

Yeah, well, you have to be a good example of mental health.

I still suffer from mild depression and anxiety and I reckon three or four days every month, it comes and hits me and I can feel it coming. I know I’ve got it for three days and it takes me a while to get through that, no one would really know that I’m going through it. A couple of close mates would, but no one else really knows. I know how to manage that now. I know that I’ve got things in place if I need to talk to someone.

How can people reading this article support you in some way?

At the moment I’d want people to talk about HALT and know about what it’s doing. We’re on Twitter and Facebook all that sort of stuff, but we want people to just think about it. The quote that stuck with me in the last 18 months is, “The pain of regret is far greater than the pain of hard work” and that, to me, is a big kicker. I lead with that in a lot of brekkies.

Daniel Teitelbaum

Daniel is the head of content at The School of Life Australia, a cultural and educational institution dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. If Daniel had to be stuck on a desert island with a philosopher, he would choose Plato—a cave may come in handy.

Photography by Jane Lucas

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.