When it comes to helping employees address the risk of suicide, experts agree that construction companies have a tough task on their hands.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, workers in the construction industry have the second-highest suicide rate of all occupational groups. That’s at a time when suicide rates are climbing across the country.
Sheet metal and HVAC contractors now have a number of strategies and tools at their disposal to assist employees who are at risk of suicide and struggling with mental health issues.
The most effective employer-run mental health programs start with a strong message from the top, according to Sally Spencer-Thomas, a Colorado-based clinical psychologist and widely recognized mental health professional, speaker, and trainer who works with construction companies and industry organizations.
Spencer-Thomas emphasizes that executives can serve as role models by sharing their own experiences with employees. “I've had some leaders say, ‘Who hasn't gone through a difficult time? When I went through a difficult time, I reached out, and I got support, and I'm better for it.’”
Assisting employees in overcoming the hurdles put in place by cultural stigmas is key, according Chris Carlough, director of education for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART). He notes that construction workers tend to pride themselves on being self-reliant.
“I think that when we're talking about trying to get people the help that they need, the general feeling in construction is, ‘tough luck,’” Carlough says.
Tracy Wilson, executive director of the Sheet Metal Contractors of Central Indiana and Fort Wayne, also points out that people such as shop foremen and operations managers within a company or a union are generally in the best position to observe warning signs among their employees.
“Those are the people who are actually going to be talking to [employees] about suicide,” she says. “Those are the people who need information.”
SMART’s Members Assistance Program (SMART MAP) works to help employees deal with fears that their employers and co-workers will look down on them, according to Randall Krocka, administrator of the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT). The program focuses on peer-to-peer intervention, and many of the workers who volunteer to get involved in SMART MAP have been through rehabilitation programs for drug and alcohol addiction, according to Carlough.
“We're not training people to be drug and alcohol counselors,” Carlough says. “We're training them to recognize what the issue looks like, to be available for emotional support, and guidance to get people into the treatment options that best suit them and their situations. We're asking [SMART MAP volunteers] to be more visible and available.”
Krocka says his experience with SMART MAP has shown that once employees get involved with the programs, initial reticence usually gives way to a willingness to share their own personal experiences.
“We’re building an infrastructure of members all across the country and in Canada who have trained in our class,” Krocka says. About half of the roughly 400 people who have gone through the training have offered to serve as contacts for employees who need help.
Spencer-Thomas says the humorous “Man Therapy” campaign provides a useful template to help at-risk men screen themselves for depression, anxiety, substance use, and anger.
“We wanted to do something that was significantly different in an effort to try to link these guys, to try to help them connect the dots well before their despair became life-threatening,” she says.
According to Spencer-Thomas, research and interviews with men who survived suicide attempts showed that they wanted the information from a relatable source who could give them actionable steps to get help. That led to the creation of a media campaign centered around fictitious doctor Rich Mahogany.
“He's ‘manning up’ mental health with his dry wit and his way of engaging men to help them think through the sometimes traditional, stereotypical ideas of masculinity that help men be resilient, but sometimes prevent men from getting the care they need or getting the support they need to be their best selves,” Spencer-Thomas says.
Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention
SMACNA has also teamed with dozens of industry organizations to form the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The alliance aims to eliminate suicide from the construction industry by providing information and resources for suicide prevention and promoting mental health.
Part of the alliance’s goal is building a better dialogue about successful strategies and issues that need to be addressed, says Mike McCullion, SMACNA’s director of market sectors and safety.
“We’re trying to get the word out about suicide in construction,” he says. “We’re doing our part in advertising the need for understanding and to get the stigma off of these issues.”
Cal Beyer, director of risk management at Issaquah, Washington-based Lakeside Industries Inc., helped establish the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention through the Construction Financial Management Association.
He describes the alliance as “a cultural transformation effort.” The construction industry needs to focus on “integrating mental health, suicide prevention, and addiction recovery into safety culture,” according to Beyer. In his view, contractors should treat mental health issues much like on-the-job injuries.
“Embrace mental health and suicide prevention as the next frontier in safety,” he says. “It’s not enough to get people home safely at the end of their shifts. For people at risk, it’s more important to get them back to work safely from home.”
According to Wilson, efforts such as the alliance have succeeded in bringing more awareness and visibility to the issues of suicide and mental health in the construction industry. Overall, observers seem united in the idea that despite the challenges facing the construction industry, contractors as a whole are taking laudable steps to help their employees address mental health risks. They point to the proliferation of support groups and concerted efforts such as the SMART MAP program as evidence that the industry takes these issues seriously.
“I've been in this space of workplace suicide prevention for probably longer than anyone else on the planet. I've been doing it for 13 years, and it was banging my head against the wall for the majority of it,” Spencer-Thomas says. “In the construction industry, everybody is very pragmatic, leaning in, moving forward very quickly. It’s very refreshing.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Crisis Text Line: Text "Hello" to 741741
Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention: smac.news/const1bd0f
SMART MAP: www.smohit.org/smartmap
Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas: www.sallyspencerthomas.com
Man Therapy: www.mantherapy.org
Suicide rising across the U.S. (CDC, 2018): www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide