Not everyone who reads this article is going to agree with it. That person might be you, your coworker or maybe even your boss. Despite that, this conversation has to happen, because we are at a crossroads. We can either continue to stick our heads in the sand or we can acknowledge the problem and help shift the culture of this industry to address it.
The conversation we must have is about the difficult subject of suicide. Some people might say this isn’t a construction problem, but a people problem. Others might say this doesn’t affect them or it’s none of their business. But the uncomfortable truth is that every year, construction has more deaths by suicide than any other industry. When you adjust for the number of workers, construction also has the highest suicide rate of any industry. These are simply the facts.
Many within the industry agree that a cultural shift is needed so that people feel they can ask for help without worrying that they will be stigmatized or negatively judged, ostracized or even lose their job. This is an industry where toughness and perseverance dominate and where “work hard, play hard” is often an unofficial slogan. This is an industry where asking for assistance or time off to address a mental health-related need could be seen as a sign of weakness. Within the industry, there’s a lot of misunderstanding around the nature of mental health and resistance to acknowledging that mental health problems are just as real as physical ones. We should begin by asking what role jobsite and industry culture has in hindering people from reaching out to get help for the mental health issues they may be experiencing.
Shifting the perspective and understanding around mental health will be most effective as a joint labor-management effort. The conversation may not be comfortable, as it will force us to admit that people can be vulnerable – and sometimes need to be – in order to get help. What can we do to shift this culture and acknowledge that many construction workers currently don’t believe it’s okay to ask for and get that help? Reconciling the business needs of the industry with the human needs of workers will always be challenging, but it’s a challenge that organized labor is well-positioned to take on.
Industry Factors Contributing to a High Risk for Suicide in Construction
Construction is inherently fast-paced and results-driven, with work completed under tight deadlines. This reality doesn’t leave a lot of room for someone to tend to their mental and emotional health.
Many of these realities can also play a role in contributing to a person’s stress level and their mental and emotional health, including:
- Competitive, high-pressure environment
- Higher prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse
- Financial insecurity
- Periods of unsteady employment depending on seasons
- Mental health stigma
- Sleep disruption
- Chronic pain caused by manual labor
- Travel that may separate workers from families and friends
- Physical strain
- Access to lethal means like firearms and high places
- Lack of paid sick leave
- Lack of paid vacation leave
Changing the Conversation
When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being. Mental health affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Various conditions fall under the umbrella of mental health such as depression, anxiety and dependence on controlled substances like opioids and alcohol. As our own U.S. Surgeon General points out, struggling with mental health issues is not a weakness or moral failing.
Acknowledging that suicide is a real problem and taking steps to address it will require many of us to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves. That includes working to address the following areas at both a national and local level:
- Destigmatizing mental health – it is not a weakness or a moral failing
- Addressing substance use disorders – there is a direct link between mental health and substance abuse
- Increasing peer support programs
- Identifying champions throughout LIUNA – it helps to hear stories from others who felt this way before or were in a similar situation
- Education and training for both leadership and membership
- Mentorship between older/younger workers
Building the Business Case for Suicide Prevention in Construction
According to a 2015 study, the national cost of suicides and suicide attempts in the U.S. in 2013 was $58.4 billion. Adjusting that cost for under-reporting increases the total to $93.5 billion. The study also noted that:
- The average cost of one suicide was $1,329,553.
- More than 97 percent of this cost was due to lost productivity. The remaining three percent was associated with medical treatment.
- Males accounted for 82 percent of these costs.
- The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men.
- Every $1.00 spent on psychotherapeutic interventions and strengthening linkages among different care providers saved $2.50 in suicide costs.
These costs don’t include the impact – direct and indirect – on family and friends left behind. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between six and 32 close family and friends are left behind after a suicide. In 2017 alone, as many as 1.5 million people unwillingly became part of this group.
Suicide Prevention Resources
Organized construction labor has made “Value on Display, Every Day” its central tenet, and we know that employees are a key component to making that a reality.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (24 hours/day, seven days/week). Those in need can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741 (U.S) or 686868 (Canada).
For more information on suicide and suicide prevention resources, see our July 2018 article, “Suicide: The Silent Epidemic.”
The LHSFNA is determined to help remove both the institutional and cultural barriers that keep many people from getting the help they need to live their best life possible.
[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]