This article addresses sensitive issues of mental health and suicide. If you feel in any way distressed by the content and would like to speak to someone, please call LifeLine on 13 11 14.

‘Are you thinking of killing yourself’ is one of the hardest things you can ask a person. Last year Gladstone broker John Whitten asked it 1,300 times.

Few people know better than the proprietor of Gladstone’s Individual Home Loans, the heartache and depression that has pervaded his local community.

Just six years ago the Queensland seaside town was in the midst of an LNG mining boom. Housing was scarce, and prices were high. But things change, and when the good times ended the average property price fell 50 per cent in five years from 2012 to 2017.

“It took a tremendous toll on our community and gave added weight to the work we do,” said John.

Flashback to 2009, John and two Rotarian mates were sitting in a Newcastle pub when they were approached by a volunteer selling raffle tickets for the mental health charity, Beyond Blue.

In the ensuing discussion the three men realised the extent to which they had each been affected by suicide. Determined to do more about the issue of mental health and suicide prevention, the friends went home to start: ‘Project We Care’.

“My brother had killed himself after the Vietnam War and I spent a lot of time being angry with him as he has four children, so I decided instead to channel that anger.”

Nine years on, Project We Care conducts Suicide SafeTALK courses, three-hour workshops that teach people how to spot the signs of someone having suicidal thoughts, how to talk to them, and how to refer them to someone who can help.

“Last year in the Gladstone region, Project We Care ran 40 of these courses, of which I did 21. Through this course we trained 500 community members and 800 high school students in suicide intervention.

“We also conducted three Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training courses (ASIST). This is a full two-day course that teaches people how to sit down with someone with thoughts of suicide, find out what their hurt is, and figure out what can be done.”

In his nine years of community work, John has trained school principals, teachers, police officers, nurses and even bank branch staff struggling with customers in distress.

“With the property market the way it was, the banks had people coming in saying, ‘Ah well, I might as well kill myself’ and the staff didn’t know how to handle that. Now they are better equipped to help others and themselves.

“In my business as a broker, I’ve had clients that have lost their homes to the banks say the same thing to me, and when they say that, I go straight out of sales mode and into suicide intervention mode.”

As a result, John said he feels it is extremely important for brokers to have training in suicide prevention.

“In our industry we see people when they are at their happiest and at their lowest, so it’s vital that we have the skills to spot the signs of suicide and respond.

“I think it’s great that the MFAA is doing that through its Accidental Counsellor program.”

A broker for 17 years, John knows the job back to front. But he says his work in mental health has helped him see things from a different perspective.

“My community work has made me more empathetic, especially to the people losing their homes to the banks. Life can be tough. But it’s important to remember it’s ok to fail sometimes, and for the parents out there, you can never tell your kids too often that you love them.”

As for the future, John plans to continue running Individual Home Loans, keep making time for his suicide prevention work, and hopefully expanding the courses across Queensland to help more people.

“It sounds horrible, but I spend more time thinking about suicide than anything else. It’s difficult sometimes, but it’s so worthwhile.”

If you or anyone you know is experiencing emotional distress and could benefit from some support, please contact LifeLine on 13 11 14.