Inside the Construction Industry’s Substance Abuse Problem

A rehab centre in Sydney's inner west is helping tradies come to terms with mental health and addiction.

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Oct 22 2018, 12:38am

Image by Kristopher McDuff

Tommy sits in a room full of tradies and tells them all about how he used to drink methylated spirits with Coke. The mixer was to stop him throwing up blood; he’d keep a schooner of the concoction next to his bed at his parents’ house, where he lived at the time. Tommy was almost 40 then, and had been in and out of the construction industry for half his life.

“I worked in construction, and I was a functioning addict from when I started when I was 18,” he explains. “At the start it was always pot. Ecstasy pills. Campbelltown coke. And then after that drinking came into it because it’s just part of the culture.

“It’s construction: if you can’t drink you can’t be trusted and be part of it.”

Tommy is a resident at the Foundation House rehabilitation centre, located in Sydney’s inner west. The 28-day residential program has been working with people like him for the past 18 years. A not-for-profit charity, Foundation House doesn’t get any government funding, but is instead supported by the construction industry itself. The centre receives a number of its referrals directly from the worksite via the Building Trade Group (BTG), through which they get most of their clientele.

Sitting here on a Wednesday night, it’s hard not to think there’s something wrong with Australia’s construction industry culture. There are close to 80 men in this room: some of them alcoholics, some of them drug addicts, some of them suicide survivors—but nearly all of them tradesmen.

“It’s the pressures that people are put under,” says Daniel, a therapist at Foundation House, when I ask him why this might be the case. “We’re talking 10 to 12 hour days six days a week, and no downtime.”

Such unforgiving hours are nothing new, and in recent years there’s been some significant headway towards raising awareness around issues of mental health on the worksite. Foundation House is an important next step. They don’t just want to shine a light on the underbelly of the construction industry: they want to offer the workers a way out of the dark.

“Foundation House was born because for all the education, for all the need for something to change there needed to be a place for some one to change,” the centre’s CEO, David Atkin, told me. “Our objective is on the wall: ‘To introduce a person to themselves in the hope that one day they become friends’.”

The 28 day residency is small when compared to the several-month stints of other rehab clinics—but that’s part of what makes it effective. David explains that people can take a few weeks off the job, come into rehab, and then get back to work.

“The workplace intervention doesn’t really work if it’s three months, six months, or 12 months because you’re not going to get the support of the employers,” he says. “But for four weeks, it works.”

Those four weeks are described by the staff at Foundation House as “intense”. After undergoing a detox and an assessment, the clients are stripped of their phones and admitted into a program that sees them meeting one-on-one with a councillor twice a week, and taking part in a rotating series of education groups, communication groups, and relationship-building groups.

Two weeks in, the residents get an opportunity to tell their story: to talk about their life, about what addiction was like for them, and become vulnerable around the other people in their group. It’s this part—this sense of connection and community—that so many of them point to as the thing they valued the most.

“The most important thing for me was coming in here and then meeting other people that have been through a similar thing,” says Alex—another, much younger, graduate of the program.

Alex started as an apprentice plasterer at the age of 18. By 19—and following constant recreational use of cannabis, ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, and cocaine—he was admitted to a psychiatric ward.

“Once I went there it was like Fuck, maybe I’m crazy. And I didn’t know how to talk about that to people at work,” he tells me. “I just wanted to fit in. Then I started to hear my story in other people at meetings, how this has helped their lives, and thought I’d give it a go. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

A third ex-resident, Jim, agrees the construction culture has historically been one that encourages substance abuse while shunning open, serious conversations around issues of mental health.

“Every workplace I’ve ever worked in has started with the culture of bullying the apprentice and going to the pub,” he says. “Some of us would drink at work. Most of us, if not all of us, would drink after work. And definitely all of us would get drunk at night at home, and show up either still drunk or with a massive hangover. It was a competitive culture: who drank more.”

Jim and Daniel both have theories as to why there is such a substance abuse problem within the industry. Jim suggests that the high wages have something to do with it—the fact that “You get a 25-year-old kid earning $400 a day.” Daniel points to the intense working conditions—the 70 hour weeks—and suggests that substances are used as a way to cope with the demands of the job.

“It’s probably moved from alcohol to methamphetamine, too,” he says. “Because they’re working long hours they’re using cocaine and things that are going to be stimulating rather than depressants.”

This “work hard, play harder” culture has a lot to answer for when it comes to the industry’s mental health problem. Many people within construction describe it as a toxic environment that’s too lucrative too leave. The money’s good, and the demand for work is so high that anyone not willing to toe the line is cast aside and replaced within a day. Everyone is expendable, pressures are high, and using drugs and alcohol to blow off steam just is, and always has been, the done thing.

So how do you solve a problem like that?

Forcing people to open up and come to terms with their emotions is one part of it. But when I ask Daniel what it is specifically about Foundation House that these men and women find so effective, based on their feedback, he points to Wednesday nights.

The weekly relapse prevention meet-ups are an extension of the residential program, providing a forum where former and current residents can come together and speak openly with one another. Some are here for the very first time, while others have been coming back, week after week, for years.

“They’re beautiful, Wednesday nights,” Tommy tells me. “Everyone’s here helping each other.”

That’s certainly the energy in the room. One by one, the current and former residents of Foundation House—“Foundo”, as they call it—take turns yelling out their names, to rapturous applause, and talking through their feelings. Others nod, speaking words of encouragement and affirmation. Some of them cry, or laugh, or joke about how they’re only here for the free dinner. Mostly, though, they speak openly and honestly. And Daniel, the therapist, hardly says a thing.

“This place looks after itself sometimes,” he tells me. “We provide support and love, but at the end of the day it’s their community: it’s the ex-residents and the current residents coming together and saying: ‘These are the results’.

“Just having something that’s theirs. This is all they’ve got really.”

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