27 October 2020


Former Maori All Black Slade McFarland chats about MATES In Construction, an initiative to reduce NZ suicides
Mental Health
When the black dog visited me, I entertained the idea of suicide. I was actually thinking about how I'd go about it. But I’d just got this counsellor, so I thought I’d wait until after I’d seen them. I ended seeing them for nearly two and a half years.
I was just struggling to deal with the end of my rugby career. Trying to process what that meant and what the next phase was.  Rugby had been my career for 16 years and I’d been chasing that goal to become an All Black. But when you start getting older there's this realisation that you can't do all the things you'd hoped to do. I felt I’d already reached my personal summit.
I no longer had the kudos that comes with being a rugby star, but I also no longer had the earning capacity. All of a sudden I’d gone from having an abundance of money to having to deal with that monetary stress of not being sure that my family was secure and worrying that my kids would miss out on things. That weighs heavily, you know, because you don't want that stigma of being the father that couldn't make ends meet. I was working hard for a wage labouring and laying concrete. Every day, I was up at 5am to go to work, then home at 5pm to do my time with a young family. There was a lot going on in my head, but I didn't know how to articulate it. Suicide did become an option.
In a man's world, you try and deal with things yourself. I thought it was a sign of weakness to ask for help. It was a caveman mentality - take my problem, go to the cave and try to come up with a solution. But life doesn't do that. It just keeps throwing more problems at you. And when it becomes too much, you just don't know where to turn and you get sucked into this black hole. You can't see the light at the end of the tunnel so you think, “Well, this must be it.”
Speaking to a counsellor for two and a half years, I learned that life was tough. But I also learned to articulate what was inside me and put it out there. It was a safe place to talk. No one was going to know about it, which is important in a small country with the tall poppy syndrome that we have in New Zealand.  Those two years of therapy got me back to a place where I was happy with who I was and what I’d achieved. It got me to a place where I was able to go back out into the community and try to help others get back to that space, too.
Before all this, rugby was my therapy.  I could physically go out and hurt people. That was my outlet. If someone had hurt me in my past, then when I played rugby I’d imagine their face on my opponent and hit them in. That was just the way things went. But after a while I knew my body couldn’t handle it any longer. So I had to move on.
Now this role at MATES is therapy for me. To talk to guys, to be open about what depression looks like and to let them know that there is help for them. That's what we're trying to provide. Twenty years ago, this kind of thing didn't exist. Now we’ve got guys out there who care and who take responsibility to look after the young guys and bring them through.
MATES is about bringing the awareness of suicide into the construction sector Because we know that males don't talk at the best of times. We're just trying to make guys feel safe enough that they can actually have that discussion not just with us, but with those in their own communities and the guys that they work with. Once they have that awareness, they know that this does help.
The thing with males is we all give it the “You all good bro?”. And most of the time we say “yeah”. But when someone says “nah”, we don’t really know what to do. So it’s about being able to get people that help straight away. 
Ninety nine per cent of the suicides in the construction industry are men. Farmers always used to be number one in the suicide rate in New Zealand. But now construction is taking over. It’s a combination of the work hours and the pressures of trying to get projects completed. Throw in the pressures of family life and when all that’s put together…
In our culture, men don't talk at the best of times. Sometimes I think that’s been ingrained in us through our culture of machismo. Or from World War One, when our men went away to war and they came back but didn't talk about it and then had to live with those memories.
As Kiwi men, we've got to learn that we have a softer side and a nurturing nature as well. And it’s about demonstrating that as fathers.  At the end of the day, men come and go. But the ones that leave a positive legacy behind can make a real difference.