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Stopping the Silent Epidemic of Suicide

It’s a silent killer, and one that affects the construction workforce more than nearly any other profession — suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the suicide rate for construction workers is the second highest of all industries (farming, fishing and forestry were first). The report showed that 53.3 construction workers out of every 100,000 falls to suicide, compared to the overall suicide rate of 12.93 people per 100,000 in the United States.

For decades, the topic wasn’t discussed, let alone dealt with. Now, however, unions, industry associations and private companies are coming together to educate contractors, employees and real estate companies about the mental health crisis — and how to extend a helping hand.

“People are talking about mental health more than ever before,” said Brendan Loftus, director of member assistance for the International Union of Elevator Constructors Local 1. “We are trying to change the culture in the construction industry.”

The union started a member assistance program seven years ago. Loftus then found a training program for labor assistance professionals that taught him how to assess people in crisis and vet treatment facilities. When the union lost five apprentices in a five-month span to suicide, it made his role a full-time position.

One problem is that until recently there have been few centralized sources of information about the statistics behind the construction industry’s mental health and the resources to help.

SkillSignal, a proptech firm focused on the construction industry, has begun collating this in a special section of its website to provide information and encourage con- struction companies and developers to provide assistance. Through the Jay Sugarman Practitioner in Residence Program, SkillSignal is partnering with Princeton’s Kahneman- Treisman Center for Behavioral Science & Public Policy to focus on the U.S. construction industry’s worsening mental health crisis. The resulting website, wellbeing.construction, offers statistics and resources.

“Suicide is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the most tragic tip of the iceberg, but what we found out is there is an enormous amount of ill health when it comes to the mental health of construction workers,” said Sebastien de Ghellinck, CEO and co-founder of SkillSignal. “And it has many dierent causes.”

In June, the Building Trade Employers Association (BTEA) held a half-day conference in New York to discuss the issue. The interactive Safebuild: Mental Health and Wellness Best Practices event focused on mental health and wellness best practices and assembled top safety experts to drive the conversation. The event drew more than 300 people, and even was attended by New York Governor Kathy Hochul. “We can find ways to make job sites more welcoming,” said Elizabeth Crowley, BTEA president and CEO. “This is a stressful, physically and emotionally draining job.”

Why is the construction industry so deeply affected? A combination of factors — work-related stress, accidents that result in chronic pain that often leads to substance abuse and addiction, the lingering eects of the pandemic and a male-dominated culture that historically suppresses the connections and communications that would allow someone to ask for or oer help, all play a role.

To put it mildly, construction work is tough, with days beginning early in the morning and often extending late into the evening. Most workers have lengthy commutes to find aordable housing, making their days even longer.

“You work with equipment that can crush you, hurt you, or can kill you,” de Ghellinck said. “There is a very small amount of career development or even job security.”

Add in basic-at-best work amenities including temporary toilet facilities, and mental stress compounds.

“Typically, when a new building is being built, the last thing they’ll do is turn on the water inside the building to avoid flooding,” said de Ghellinck. “For the entire time, there is no water, bathrooms, or drinking water on site. Even something as essential as water was not being provided on most jobs, though the best GCs provide them.”

Physical Pain
It’s also physically stressful, with injuries common, even with safety measures in place. But taking time o to heal them is less frequent — a worker who isn’t on the job isn’t being paid. Instead, many will live with the pain, or self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to keep functioning. That can lead to addiction, depression and, for some, the worst possible outcome.

“It’s not a matter of if you’ll be injured, it’s when. Some aches and pains will be worse than others. That leads to painkillers, and that aects your mental health,” creating an ever-worsening cycle without intervention, said Loftus, who survived two suicide attempts before a colleague reached out and got him into treatment. He spoke with Mann Report just days after observing 25 years of sobriety.

Connections and Culture
Another challenge is the transient nature of construction work, which makes building strong personal bonds with co-workers dicult, if not impossible.

“Before starting SkillSignal, I worked for large corporations and made a lot of very good friends with my ex-colleagues who were there for me during hard times,” de Ghellinck said. “In construction, people are working together for short times — and odds are you won’t see 90% or 95% of those people on the next job. Connection is a big challenge.”

That’s why most construction workers suffer from mental illness for seven to nine years before asking for help, Loftus added.

“Part of it was that there were no resources to help,” he said. “But also, if you mentioned suicide or mental health, you’d be blackballed.”

SkillSignal advocates Behavioral Based Safety, a process that brings management and employees together to focus on daily safety behavior. Incidents are examined to determine the activator, behavior and consequence and help eliminate peer pressure to engage in unsafe behavior.

“When you create connection, that is an immediate impact on mental health,” de Ghellinck said. “You’re going to be safer — if you’re not going to be safe for you, if you have a connection with people on the job, you’re going to look out for each other.”

Loftus spends his days visiting sites, talking to small groups about his own story, mental health, alternatives to pain medications and how to spot troubling signs in and reach out to co-workers.

“It probably took 15 years [before I could talk about it]. There was so much shame,” he said. “So, now I publicly talk about it. That’s the biggest thing. You’re amazed at what people would say. Now, we’re training our members to ask those words: ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’”

He’s also training people to recognize the different levels of crisis from depression to the last stages of saying farewell and giving away belongings, even holding mock sessions that will make conversations easier. He also is providing formidable resources to those who ask — his connections with treatment facilities can help get someone in trouble in-patient care and payment arrangements within hours, he said.

“They can call me 24/7,” he said.

A Shift in the Wind
“The good news is that people are asking for help, and it’s peer-to-peer help,” Crowley said. “I see it as something in a total wellness program.”

Contractors are now providing health coaches and wellness trailers on job sites, but health and safety are also being discussed in groups.

“They’re bringing this conversation to the job site, with safety huddles,” Crowley said. “There are hard hat stickers that say, ‘It’s okay to not be okay,’ with information about the 988 Suicide Hotline.”

Attitudes are changing, though not fast enough, Loftus said. Physical safety ocers are now on job sites, and whereas in decades past, safety equipment was disdained by workers, now ignoring protocols can result in termination.

“We’ve changed the safety culture. Now, you need another guy just for this,” he said. “Everyone can do this training. Workflow can be controlled with the contractors doing it jointly with the unions.”

An influx of younger workers and women, who are more open to discussing feelings, may slowly be shifting the attitude toward discussing mental health. Even the simplest gesture can make an impact.

“This is an industry where, traditionally, people acted tough, but it is opening up more about alcoholism and encouraging common courtesies,” Crowley said. “Use people’s first names.”

Loftus’ focus has shifted, too.

“Seven years ago, I was probably spending 99.9% of my time on substance use,” he said. “Now, it’s 50/50 mental health.”

Large construction firms are listening, and that’s why all three are hopeful. Loftus reported that Crowley and other building trade organizations are forming a committee.

And it just makes good business sense to treat people well.

“The ball is rolling forward,” Loftus said. “I’ve always been a proponent of helping someone, because someone did it for me.”

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by texting 988 or visiting 988lifeline.org.