The U.S. is in the middle of a mental health crisis. The problem is real and undeniable. Consider these facts:
- In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide and more than 70,000 died from drug overdoses.
- More than half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some time in their life.
- Nearly one in five U.S. adults currently live with a mental illness; that’s approximately 44 million people.
“Promoting good mental health in the workplace is as much a health and safety measure as preventing falls or stopping any other workplace hazard,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LIUNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “Despite the fact that it impacts so many members and their families, mental health is a subject that’s often avoided or misunderstood.”
Mental health is made up of several different components relating to our emotional, psychological and social well-being. Mental health is an integral part of the mind that dictates our mood, behavior and response to social situations on a day-to-day basis.
Everyone has mental health, whether it is good or poor. Mental health can become poor for a variety of reasons, including biological factors, family history or life experiences. Work plays a major part in the state of an individual’s mental health and well-being, as it is a continuous factor in our day-to-day lives.
A common cause of poor mental health, especially in the work environment, is stress. This stress can be brought on by work or a personal situation. High stress levels over time can lead to mental health illnesses, especially depression and anxiety, which are the most common mental health conditions employees face. One in six people will interrupt their career at some point because of a mental health condition. And on any given work day, we lose about one person to suicide while they’re on the job.
Work factors contributing to stress can include:
- Demanding workloads
- Long working hours
- Long commutes
- Increased time away from friends or family
- Job insecurity
- Problems with work relationships
- Constant changes within the working environment
Mental illnesses are diagnosable just like physical illnesses, such as diabetes or heart disease. They include many different conditions with varying degrees of severity and can be occasional or long-lasting. Depression and anxiety are the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses, with symptoms that tend to be more visible and recognized more easily.
Mental illnesses are serious disorders that can disrupt a person’s ability to work and carry on their usual relationships. They are not caused by character flaws and have nothing to do with being lazy or weak. A variety of factors contribute to our mental health, including:
- Genes, family history or biological factors such as chemical imbalances in the brain
- Life experiences, such as a history of abuse, especially in childhood
- A traumatic brain injury
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- Having a serious medical condition like cancer
- Life events such as a divorce, death of a close family member or cancer diagnosis
- Having few friends and feeling lonely or isolated
Unfortunately, there is a lot of stigma and judgement surrounding mental health illness. Most people who live with mental illness have been blamed for their condition at some point. Their symptoms have been referred to as “a phase” or something they can control “if they only tried” or “snapped out of it.” In addition, there is a perception that seeking help is a weakness and there is a fear about the impact on relationships and work status. As a result, stigma prevents people from seeking the help they need. This can further isolate and disconnect people experiencing poor mental health.
Workplaces have the opportunity to play a fundamental role in changing the perception and understanding of mental health and eradicating the stigma of asking for help. Mental health in the construction industry in particular can be a difficult and sensitive subject to tackle. It is made more difficult by the fact that those with mental health issues don’t regularly discuss them – hence the “silent epidemic.” LIUNA and its signatory contractors are well-positioned to promote, support and help lead the way in addressing mental health.
Evidence demonstrates that greater awareness and education about mental health issues can facilitate help-seeking behavior. Targeted information can break down stigma and normalize discussion of these topics. Here are several steps that can be taken as part of joint labor-management partnerships to develop mental health awareness:
- Address organizational gaps in knowledge.
- If there is a culture of suppressing mental health or discouraging the discussion, change it. This needs to come from senior leadership to demonstrate a commitment to change.
- Make information, tools and support resources available to workers.
- Encourage open conversations about mental health.
- Support workers, who may have needed time off, when they return to work.
- Promote a culture of respect and dignity.
- Promote good mental health for all and encourage an open-minded approach to health and well-being.
- Provide training on mental health.
[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion]