Shaka trucks driving mens mental health awareness

What better way of sharing a health message than on the sides of trucks working on our nation’s road projects?

You may have spotted Altus Traffic’s uniquely designed trucks at the site of road projects across Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

A traffic control company, Altus has partnered with mental health organisation The Shaka Project to display important messages across its fleet of vehicles all over the country.

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The two first joined forces in 2021, with every Altus employee donning a shaka (a hand signal where thumb and pinky are extended and the other three fingers remain curled) shirt with the goal of starting the conversation about men’s mental health.

There’s no missing the distinctive hand signal on this truck. (Image: Altus Traffic)

Shaka Project founder Sean Phillip first met with Altus CEO Ben Marsonet over two years ago, forming their partnership after giving a talk at an Altus site in Adelaide.

“Ben started following our page a couple of years ago,” Phillip explains. “He reached out one day off of one of our posts, and I said we should do some work together. We met up over Zoom two or three times and he said I should come to Adelaide and speak at one of their worksites.

“Ever since then we’ve built this incredible relationship. We’ve done events at a majority of their sites around Australia with their traffic controllers.

“It would have been just over 12 months ago, I got an email from Ben and he said: “I’ve issued these trucks, let me know what you think.” Now, the trucks are an active part of the Altus fleets and could be out anywhere on Australia’s roads day-to-day.

Altus Traffic workers with one of the Shake Trucks. (Image: The Shaka Project.)

The ‘You Matter’ slogan is just one of the many messages The Shaka Project aims to spread through its range of initiatives, including talks and events at schools, worksites, football and other sporting clubs.

Working with Altus to add the imagery to their trucks is another way of creating a conversation starter, Phillip says.

Stigma around discussing mental health is particularly evident in men, an issue which The Shaka Project and Altus are trying to change.

An Australian Longitudinal Study of Male Health report says that up to 25 per cent of Australian men have experienced a mental health disorder in their lifetime, with 15 per cent experiencing the same in a 12-month period.

“We always get messages from people seeing the trucks and it’s always a great way to start the conversation and get more people talking,” Phillip says. 

“Even when they’re on the road and stuck in traffic having a bad day, they can see the trucks and get a nice friendly reminder that they matter and they have worth.

“People will be driving past and snapping a photo and sending it to us. They’ll say ‘I’ve been having a bit of a rough day and I saw this’. 

“Even personally when I first saw one of the trucks on the road, I was having a bit of rough day. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and the first time I saw it, it put a massive smile on my face. 

“Personally, it’s made a really big impact. It’s making an impact, and that’s one thing Ben wanted to do, to try and spread that message.

“It’s really special and we’re very grateful for the relationship with Altus. They’re doing some special things in Australia.”

The Shaka Project team took their message on board the HMAS Brisbane before the ship set sail for six months at sea. (Image: The Shaka Project)

The trucks are just one part of the organisation though – a visible beacon of the message The Shaka Project is trying to spread.

It has taken Phillip to all corners of Australia, and even internationally. One particular highlight was getting to talk to Royal Australian Navy members about mental health onboard the HMAS Brisbane.

“It was just a whole new world. We had an incredible presentation for the guys and girls there that were just about to go out for about six months. 

“It was really good to get in there and talk to them and see a different side of the world.

“The most special place I’ve been is in really regional country New South Wales, the farm towns in southern Queensland and towards far north Queensland as well.

“You get into a local footy club full of 100 people, they all know each other, they all love each other and you’re able to have a really impactful conversation. 

“That’s the biggest highlight for me, getting into small communities that have really been impacted by mental health and suicide and getting in there and reigniting the conversation. The feedback we get is unbelievable. 

“We went to New Zealand last year and we’re off there this year again for a few events. To take it international is really special.”

Ben Marsonet, CEO of Altus Traffic, speaking at a Shaka Project event. (Image: Altus Traffic)

As for the shaka itself, the story behind the symbol is a simple one. It has taken on a greater meaning however, Phillip says.

“It derives from my step-son, he’s 10 years old. When he was four or five, just before I started the project, I was at the playground with him. 

“He came off the slide pretty hard. I was that lazy parent, sitting about 30 or 40 metres away. I thought ‘should I go over to him, is he alright?’ He looked up at me and gave me a shaka and I gave him a shaka back. He brushed himself off and kept playing. 

“I thought that was a cool way we communicated without using words. 

“We find that’s the biggest thing with men and their mental health, that first communication is always the hardest. 

“If we can put a shaka in front of it, say this is a safe space, you’re wearing a shaka shirt, it gives them permission to say ‘hey I’m here, I’ve got empathy and understanding about mental health. You can have a chat’.”

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