Luke Baker has worked in the most remote reaches of Australia and Papua New Guinea, but leaving his family is always a painful rupture. But Facebook is helping in surprising ways.
Now based in Bundaberg, Queensland, he was sent to mining camps as a "fly-in, fly-out" worker (or FIFO), where he'd often spend around three weeks on-site and one week off in an endless, "torturous" cycle.
"There was one time where my wife dropped me off to the airport and I just remember my step-daughter, she was really struggling with it at the time," Baker said, "telling me she hated my work and wanted me to stay home forever.
"I was on the airplane in tears and I just remember sitting there thinking, 'how do I continue to do this?'"
Deciding that writing down his emotions could help, he launched a Facebook page called Fifo Man where he posted thoughts about work, family and wellbeing.
Baker's page, which now has almost 17,000 followers, is part of network of Facebook pages that are stirring conversations about mental health among men who are not always upfront with their feelings.
FIFO workplaces, where employees often live in isolated, temporary compounds, have been recognised as increasing risk of mental illness.
A 2015 inquiry by the Western Australian (WA) government found three recent studies that suggested the incidence rate of mental health distress among the FIFO workforce could be 30 percent — higher than the national average of 20 percent.
In some states, FIFO's impact is widespread. It affects an estimated 9.3 percent of WA's population whether directly or through FIFO families.
"When I first started it [the Facebook page] it was just me putting my thoughts and feelings out there," Baker said. "More and more, messages I got were about guys on-site who had taken their own lives and people that had suffered some depression, and I started to see how bad it really was.
"I wanted to break down the stigma around guys' mental health and encourage them to seek help."
Building a safe space
Dameyon Bonson, a Mangarayi and Torres Strait Islander man based in the Kimberley, has worked extensively on men's mental health issues. He's also built an app called YFronts that aims to help men working FIFO jobs with health education.
Bonson pushes back on the idea men won't talk about mental health. "If the environment is suited and is deemed to be safe, then men contribute quite openly and honestly," he said. "Men are actually really active in this [Facebook] space, but they're doing it on their terms," he said, pointing to Fifo Man, but also pages like The OZ Project and A Chance for Change.
Andrew Thorp, men's project manager at the depression, anxiety and suicide prevention group BeyondBlue, agreed with Bonson. "If the environment's there, men will talk. It doesn't matter if it's physical or online," he said. However, he emphasised the mental health impact of such grassroots Facebook groups has not been fully investigated. "Theoretically, there's a great opportunity for men to talk," he said. "All of this is predicated on individuals being on social media, and being on social media regularly."
"Men are actually really active in this space, but they're doing it on their terms."
Sam Grech, a former FIFO engineer based in Perth who follows Fifo Man on Facebook, said he recognises himself on the page. He is mostly a reader on Fifo Man rather than a poster, but sometimes he participates in Baker's live chat sessions. "It helps you to realise that, yes, that was me six months ago," Grech said — that feelings of isolation and exhaustion are natural.
Conversations happen on the page that couldn't necessarily happen anywhere else, he believes. "It creates a space where people can hide behind the screen, but have real conversations ... I suppose it just feels like a more sheltered environment than down at the pub where anyone can hear you."
Talking face to face
While they shine a light on the importance of mental health, public pages may not always be the place for the type of in-depth conversations needed to achieve longterm behaviour change. "What's really needed is for that social group to have some opportunity to go behind closed doors and be able to have those conversations," Thorp explained.
Gil Rhodes, a Brisbane-based engineer, also used to be a FIFO worker and struggled with the toll it took on his family. He said pages like Fifo Man send the message that it's OK to talk, meaning men could open up more with others in their lives.
"For a while, I thought it was just me that was in this situation. That's where a lot of the questions about it came from — I'm not home, I'm not seeing the kids — it let me know that, OK, I'm not the only one facing this and it's OK to feel this way," he said.
"We're told by society not to cry. Not to complain about anything. To stick your head down and do the job. Mental health for men is a big shake-up."
That's the message Baker is spreading, one follower at a time. "Most guys don't know the words to describe their feelings," he said.
"I just try to be someone that shows men out there that they're not alone when they're sitting at night feeling sad, and shedding a tear after they get off the phone from their kids. They're not alone, and they're not weak for feeling that way."