Lithgow: depression casts pall over mining town

Emily Ritchie, THE AUSTRALIAN

September 14, 2017

The coal town of Lithgow, in the shadow of the Blue Mountains, is dealing with another kind of darkness as it grapples with the decline of the industry that once made it thrive.
As reliance on fossil fuels wanes in favour of renewable energy, residents are picking their way through a depression that afflicts the town economically and its people mentally. Electrician Ben Smith has witnessed the fall of a once-mighty industry.
“When I was a kid, I don’t remember jobs being such a big issue,” Mr Smith, 33, said. “Everyone seemed to find work, there were four or five more mines than there are now and the jail was just being built. But so many mines have closed and there’s been little to no jobs growth. Increasingly, we feel like the needs of our community are falling on deaf ears with the government.”
Mr Smith, who works at the Springvale mine, said the number of apprenticeships on offer had dwindled from hundreds to just six this year.
“There’s definitely not a great deal of opportunity for the kids,” said Mr Smith, who worries for the future of his three young children. “We’re a really close-knit family. I don’t want them to be forced to move away to find work.’’
Lithgow has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the country and scarcely conceals a devastating problem with youth suicide. In the eight months to February, Lithgow was rocked by eight suicides, the victims aged between 22 and 35. All but one were male. Seventeen Lithgow residents took their lives in the five years to 2015.

Mayor Stephen Lesslie cited a lack of mental health services, high unemployment, the struggling coal industry and an absence of mental health education in schools.
“Our community is deeply affected by the rising levels of suicide but unsure of how to best respond,” he wrote in an August 25 submission to the NSW parliamentary inquiry into the prevention of youth suicide. “There is no Headspace service providing early intervention mental health services for young people in Lithgow, with the nearest located in Bathurst (45 minutes by car) and Penrith (1.5 hours by car),” Mr Lesslie said.

Today, on RUOK? Day, the Springvale mine is introducing the Mates In Mining program aimed at giving miners the skills to help identify mental health problems and suicidal tendencies in their workmates. “We’ve seen a lot of success with that program and there are a lot of similarities between construction and mining,” Andrew McMahon, a former Mineral Councils employee who runs
the charity, said. “(It’s) a predominantly male workforce, high-disposable incomes, working in regional/rural areas, skills-based.”
Mr Smith, who will be there today as the program is rolled out, hopes it will help colleagues. “When a town falls on hard times like ours has, some people sadly think that suicide is their only option.”
Benjamin McCann works at Wallerawang Engineering, a firm with mostly coalmining clients. “We would lose most of our business if more coalmines were to close,” he said.

If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, call Lifeline (131114) or the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467), or see a doctor.

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