Frank Jacobsen has a saying he likes to use when it comes to helping people with their mental health challenges: “be the fence at the top of the cliff rather than the ambulance at the bottom of it.”
In other words, like with any other health issue, it’s better when mental health is approached with a strategy that revolves around early intervention than attempting to pick up the pieces after something traumatic has happened.
It’s fair to say that society in general hasn’t always approached mental health challenges in this way – and that the mining industry hasn’t either. To hear Jacobsen frame it this way, speaks volumes to how far both the general population and industry have come when it comes to managing mental health.
Jacobsen is the Director of Regional Counselling Services, a Kalgoorlie-Boulder based company which specialises in helping workers at the Goldfields’ many mining operations.
When he first started working in counselling seven years ago, the landscape looked incredibly different.
“Back then at mine sites it was ‘can we have a conversation, where can we go and hide?’,” Jacobsen reflected.
“But now people are quite happy to be out in the open and to be seen talking to me. That’s remarkable in such a short period of time.
“It’s now OK to ring up the boss and mention the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ and they are quite happy to have that conversation. People ring up and have a mental health day and there’s no longer the third degree when you go back to work.
“People are starting to understand that a mental health issue needs to be treated just like a cut, otherwise it can start to fester and get worse.
“There’s an understanding that there’s lots of different treatments and therapies out there for different parts of mental health and there’s been a great awakening about that.
“The idea of keeping quiet and not telling anyone is seen as maladaptive and not good for you.”
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Jacobsen has always been interested in community service and not-for-profits and had a long-time involvement in the Lions Club and the Yilgarn Agricultural Society.
He also had an entrenched interest in mental health, having facilitated and coordinated family relationship seminars after seeing first-hand some of the struggles in his own family while living regionally.
But he never considered making that his profession until he and his wife sold their long-time retail business in 2015.
“A friend of mine Bob Cable said ‘what are you doing now’ and I said ‘not much’, so he said ‘come and give us a hand’,” Jacobsen said.
“He was a minesite chaplain and I said ‘I’m not a chaplain’ but he said ‘that’s all right, you’ve got a passion for helping people and you can study, so come along’.
“And then when I finished my diploma of counselling and Certificate 4 in mental health, he handed me the keys and said ‘I’m retiring, good luck’.”
The business that Jacobsen took over was named Regional Chaplaincy Services. Its subsequent name change might better reflect more contemporary times but Jacobsen says the basic aim of RCS still follows a rich tradition.
“Historically, the chaplain was always the one who went out and looked after people – and they called it pastoral care,” he said.
“They would look for people who were struggling and try to help them. In warfare they were the ones that went out into the trenches and even went over the top with the soldiers.
“In mining companies, they were the ones who were going down the shaft and being in the coal face, or in our case, the gold face.
“The priest would have been back in the church looking after church things and the chaplain was out helping people.
“As a society in those days, we were primarily Christian, and the question would hardly ever have been asked if people were from another religion.
“But at the same time, I don’t think it would have mattered. Mother Theresa was out helping people and she didn’t care if you wanted to die a Hindu…she wasn’t trying to convert you, she was out there to help.”
RCS now has a team of four, with Jacobsen joined by psychologist of more than 30 year John Littler, experienced chaplain Joseph Yepwi, and Sharon Mosby, who is an expert in working with children, youth and families.
Jacobsen said the diversity of the team was mirrored by what they encountered in the field – where long shift and testing work conditions are just part of the equation facing workers.
“When I took the business over, it was very heavily focussed on men’s health,” he explained.
“The average miner at the time would have been between 45 and 55, white, male and probably a bit overweight.
“These days it’s a lot more diverse. Just recently I had a situation where a guy’s granddaughter has come in as his supervisor, so we’ve got multiple generations involved and gender equity is also making huge inroads.
“And then you’ve got the cultural differences. You walk into a geology lab and you’ll see five or six different ethnic groups.
“We’ve gone from being kind of monosyllabic into this huge diversity and it’s actually really exciting.”
RCS works with a range of mining operations throughout the Goldfields-Esperance region, with Jacobsen identifying Gold Fields – St Ives as an early leader in identifying mental health as a key issue for its workers.
Jacobsen said both companies and their employees were now far more aware of the close relationship between psychological health and work – and the way physical health is connected to that.
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA and Lifeline have partnered to roll out the Resourceful Mind project, which focusses on preparing workers to provide emotional support for colleagues.
“For decades people would say that a happy worker is a productive worker – but when people have actually done science and research, they have found that a productive worker is a happy worker,” Jacobsen said.
“And that’s because that worker feels like they have achieved something and is going home feeling like they are appreciated.
“And mental health is not just mental health – it’s mental, physical and spiritual…we’re all one.
“What we eat and how we exercise has a huge effect on our mental health, and vice versa.
“If people are depressed for long periods, or over-anxious, or very stressed, you get physical symptoms – from a digestive perspective that might be diarrhea or constipation, it could be the sweats or the shakes, there will probably be a lack of sleep and your libido will hit rock bottom.
“These are physical symptoms of a mental health issue. As I say, we’re all one and we’ve got to start looking at it that way.”