Combatting a Silent Killer: Standing Up to Suicide in Construction

Construction worker walking toward excavator

Is someone you know suicidal?

That’s a hard question to answer, because we don’t talk openly about suicide. It doesn’t matter if it’s someone well-known or a relatively anonymous person, suicide is a tragedy that has often been treated with silence. But it doesn’t have to be.

Perhaps you don’t want to offend the person you think might be struggling, you feel unsure, or maybe you just don’t know what to say. But staying silent only serves to further isolate people who may be struggling with their mental health. 

Taboo topic?

The topic of mental health in general has historically been somewhat taboo, even though the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) calls mental-health related illnesses a “major public health concern.”1  This is especially true in the construction industry, where hard work and physical toughness count for a lot and people don’t want to be viewed as weak. 

When we break the silence, we can offer each other a path out of that inner world that might be holding us prisoner. This article’s purpose is to practically equip you to be able to answer the question, “Is someone you know suicidal?” and respond with the appropriate action. 

Millions of people struggle with depression

In spite of someone’s role at work or what their life appears to be like on Instagram, around 40 million Americans struggle daily with depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.2 Whether you read the statistics or personally know people who have struggled, it becomes readily apparent that mental illness is a huge problem in America. 

Living with mental illness greatly increases suicide risk. Suicide is so prevalent, in fact, that it’s the second leading cause of death among men between the ages of 15 and 54.3 And guess who makes up the majority of the construction industry? Yep, you knew it. Men who fall right in that window, with a median age of 41.4

Suicide is a bigger problem in construction

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that construction workers are nearly four times more likely to take their own lives than people in the general population.5 

OSHA Secretary Jim Frederick notes that in construction and mining, workers deal with numerous challenges that leave them vulnerable to a sense of loneliness, depression, and despair:  “Workers in construction face many work-related stressors that may increase their risk factors for suicide, such as the uncertainty of seasonal work, demanding schedules and workplace injuries that are sometimes treated with opioids.”6 

Another one of these accumulating stressors is that most construction workers live and work in rural, isolated areas. Their chances of facing mental health issues without available resources are higher, and rates of suicide nearly double those in urban centers.7 

It’s not only the U.S., but Canada, Europe, and many other developed countries. Founder Jorges Gullestrup of Australian Mental Health Association MATES remarks “It’s really a situation where you can’t talk to your employer about it because they want 100%, so each sign of weakness can make you unemployable.”8

Perhaps your concern has been that people will take advantage of any leniency that you show them. But that’s unlikely. In the wise words of construction veteran Donna Grant, who works as a Proposal Manager with Scott Construction Group, “People don’t claim mental illness to have a day off for skiing. In fact, people are more likely to say they have the flu when in fact they may be suffering from depression and anxiety.”9

COVID-19 aggravated mental health problems

In the last two years, mental health problems in America have gotten even worse. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the onslaught of isolation brought about by COVID was a blow to people already struggling. In late 2020, the CDC verified a profound one-year increase in the number of people with anxiety and depressive symptoms.10

Actions to take against suicide in construction

In light of the difficulties that construction workers face, there’s good news: you can do something to lower the number of suicides in construction. We all can. That’s what this article is about. But brace yourself: each of these steps require transparency, vulnerability, and a willingness to lead by example. You and your crew may have a ways to go, so don't hesitate to get started.

Step one: get educated

When someone is suicidal, it’s likely that they’re not openly talking about it. Many times it is because they are afraid to ask for help. But a more subtle reason has to do with the way our society deals with pain.

Suicidal people are feeling a lot of sadness. A lot of despair. For some, there’s a huge burden of shame. Especially for men, suicidal emotions can manifest as anger and hopelessness. But as a culture, Americans don’t welcome the knowledge that pain is a normal part of life’s course. When it comes to men, the “tough guy” image lingers, especially in construction. And with it comes this false idea that men shouldn’t express their emotions, or worse, shouldn’t feel at all.

In the words of John Lennon, “You’ve got to hide your love away”—as well as your pain, your disappointment, and pretty much any negative feelings.17 With the dominant presence of social media becoming ever more influential in our daily lives, the very thing that ought to increase our communication and connectivity does the opposite.18 Loneliness has skyrocketed since the release of the iPhone and apps like Instagram and Facebook, while the pressure to seem okay has increased.19 

Another thing to note: being depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has appeared to hit “rock bottom.” Even if they feel that they have, it won’t necessarily show on the outside.  

Loneliness, isolation, cultural attitudes around mental health, and the role of men in society all play into why people attempt suicide and why construction people do. Explore this information and seek the suggested experience to help you wrap your mind around the issue of suicide and depression. 

Start with these recommendations from BuildWitt and the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). 

Read

 

Watch 

 

Listen

Go

 

Step two: look out for the warning signs

Because your team’s safety is your primary concern, you’ve got to know what signs point to suicide and make your team aware of these signs as well. Creating awareness is one of the biggest preventative measures you can take. Once you and your team are aware of the problem, you can start to look for people near you who may be suffering. That’s where step two comes in: watching for warning signs.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center has published the following warning signs to watch for:

Immediate Risk

Some behaviors may indicate that a person is at immediate risk for suicide.

The following three behaviors should prompt you to immediately call or text 988 (988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline) or call a mental health professional:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

If someone is engaging in these behaviors, it’s crucial that you wait with that person until you access someone who can help. Don’t leave them alone.

Serious Risk

Other behaviors may also indicate a serious risk—especially if the behavior is new; has increased; and/or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. Things like a breakup, divorce, separation, death of a loved one, loss of a job, and financial problems can all act as catalysts for suicidal thinking. Signs that a crew member is at serious risk include:

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

Step three: spread awareness 

Since so many of you are drawn to our mission to make the Dirt World a better place, we know you care very deeply about the wellbeing of your people. Suicide isn’t a problem due to lack of caring. 

But you need to take it a step further and make suicide prevention and mental health an everyday, ordinary, normal part of your team's ongoing training. Think of it as the safety training that all safety training is built on. By spreading awareness among the people at your company, you can help to normalize mental healthcare as part of overall health and cultivate a culture of support.

Formal training

If you haven’t already, consider going through a formal training program yourself or having your EHS manager trained in mental health crisis response. Some of the great opportunities that are out there include:

Benefits

If you haven’t done so in a while, it may be time to look over the benefits and compensation package that you offer to employees. Sit down with your HR team and verify that your people, even your lowest paid, are being paid competitive wages. Make sure every single person also has access to the services they and their families need. These services should include wellness benefits that cover the body as well as mental health treatment and addiction recovery options.

Many studies link poverty and lack of medical care to poor overall mental wellness.20 Some people get caught in a cycle of debt and feeling claustrophobic, like there’s “no way out.” In response, some construction companies, like Sargent in the Northeast, offer basic courses on money management. Even without that, most companies provide free consultations services about how their 401k and retirement savings work, as well as the opportunity to purchase life insurance and create a will.

Don’t let your crew down—take care of their needs. 

Display information

Everything you need to publicize mental health awareness both on the jobsite and in the office is available to you, pronto. There’s absolutely no excuse for denying your crew the advantage of seeing this information on a day-to-day basis. The following resources are available through the CIASP:

Download toolbox talks and incorporate them into daily safety meetings
Display posters around the jobsite
Wallet cards
Order and print hardhat stickers

Additional options are accessible via web at a minimal cost:
Make Safety Visible
Download the free SAMHSA poster
UK’s Walker Safety free poster

In addition to prominently displaying mental health information and resources, make these screening tools widely available to all of your employees.

Step four: check in with yourself

Maybe you’re the one who, in spite of doing everything right, is struggling with negativity, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Maybe you don’t know what built up to it, but here you are. Feeling further and further away from the people that care about you, adrift and isolated.

If you’re in crisis, ask for help

Ignoring your difficulties will do you no favors. Suicide doesn’t just rob the people who experience the devastating loss of a loved one—it robs you every single day of a life that should be filled with some good, some bad, but ultimately an overall sense of energy and fulfillment.

If you’ve had to hide your struggles and feel yourself getting closer to the edge, DO NOT HESITATE. Reach out. There are people who will respect your privacy while going to bat for you. 

If you’re currently struggling, dial 988 or text 741741 anytime, anywhere. 

Make lifestyle changes 

If you’ve noticed some negative changes in your physical and mental health, but you’re not suicidal, there are things you can do to prevent suicidal thinking in the future. In collaboration with My Workplace Health, here are seven of the most profoundly helpful steps that can improve your mental wellbeing:

  1. Get treatment for mental health problems. Check your insurance, then use psychologytoday.com or mentalhealthmatch.com to look for a provider near you who is covered by your insurance network. Already in the care of someone who may not be working for you? Speak up. You can make changes to your care plan. 
  2. Identify triggering situations. Start thinking about what makes you feel worse, and work to avoid those circumstances. It could be fewer phone calls to a certain someone, missing out on the summer parade season, or skipping a night out at the bar. Be honest with yourself and make the right changes.
  3. Self-care. This one is huge. Construction workers are notoriously crappy eaters. They drink, they chew, they smoke, they inhale candy, yet they expect their bodies to Just. Keep. Going. But poor self-care doesn’t just affect physical health—it takes a big toll on mental health as well. Remember the basics:
    -Exercise
    -Eat clean
    -Sleep eight hours a night
    -Avoid substances
  4. Follow your doctor’s advice. If your doctor has prescribed medications or other activities, it is important that you hold to them. People hire you to do your job professionally—let your healthcare provider do theirs. If you feel that your healthcare provider isn't addressing or treating your concerns properly, get a second opinion. You know yourself, and you are your own best advocate.
  5. Create a regular daily routine with predictable wake and sleep times. It’s not just about how much you sleep, but when. Creating regular wake and sleep schedules will help you get a better quality of sleep and gain a sense of control over your life.
  6. Set goals that matter to you. These could be work or personal goals, like weight loss, achievements, or simply finishing something that you start. Reflect on the goals you accomplish, n small. By rehearsing them, you build strength toward your next goal.
  7. Do fun things that don’t include alcohol, drugs, or sex. Climb a mountain, swim in a waterfall, go to a spa, read a book. Today’s world is replete with self-care options that are nurturing, healthy, and affordable.

Step five: check out mental toughness

Mental toughness doesn't mean having a grin-and-bear-it attitude. Mental toughness has to do with being vulnerable, making space for difficulty, and being resilient when you get tumbled by life’s big waves.

Your mental strength affects your overall health

Natasha Duke is a registered psychotherapist at the Cleveland Clinic who has proven that mental strength or resiliency can affect everything from motivation and relationships to performance, decision-making, and productivity.

“We know that having good mental health can help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and dementia,” Duke says. 

Similar thoughts have been expressed by elite track and field coach Steve Magness on the Science of Resilience episode of the Rich Roll podcast. He notes that, like the Marines, people don’t get tough by being thrown into adverse situations unprepared; they get tough because their training prepared them to make the right decision in the moment. That’s the way the Marines train, and that’s the way Magness himself approaches training—making space for everything that’s to come, and bearing with it when it does.

The pillars of mental toughness

Being mentally tough does not equate to being unfeeling. At the heart of mental toughness is the capacity to continue to get in the game and engage every day with the struggle and come out ok on the other side.

The Navy Seals teach their newest applicants that everything begins and ends in the mind, but you don’t have to be in the Seals to know that’s true. Here are the Seals’ four pillars of mental strength that can help you be succesful:21

PILLAR #1: SETTING GOALS

Focus on singular short-term goals with total concentration. If you single out one task and ignore the part of your mind that tells you to worry and quit, you can avoid getting overwhelmed by everything else, whether the distraction is how to finish the whole job or trouble at home. Seals call this eating the elephant one bite at a time. 

PILLAR #2: MENTAL VISUALIZATION

To visualize something is to practice it mentally before actually engaging. Slow down, imagine yourself going through the motions, and go back and correct each action in your mind where you made a mistake—all before doing anything with your physical body. This will strengthen your connection between your body and your mind and help you execute calmly even when situations don’t go as planned.

PILLAR #3: POSITIVE SELF TALK

How’s your self-talk? Your own voice is the most dominant one in your head. Seals use this pillar to constantly reinforce the thinking that whatever they need to do has been done before. In other words, it can be done again. Not “I’m the greatest human who ever lived,” but more like “I know this is possible. It’s been done before. I can do it.” Constant positive self-talk is like an engine that propels you forward. 

PILLAR #4: AROUSAL CONTROL

Our bodies release hormones when we’re stressed. They cause things like sweaty palms and a pounding pulse—and they put a stop to normal bodily functions. Seals focus on box breathing exercises to train themselves to counter these stress responses.  

Step six: build trust by example

Building a culture of strong relationships where trust is the foundation can seem like a daunting task, especially if your team has been suffering from unhealthy culture. But if you start with yourself and lead by example, your people will follow. 

Stay vulnerable

When leaders show vulnerability, it can transform the atmosphere and foster a culture of support. Revealing your struggles and the battles you have won—and lost—establishes powerful rapport and creates a sense of psychological safety where others can share, too.

Business leader Corey Blake is an advocate for practicing vulnerability in the workplace because it benefits your people. “As psychological safety increases, employees can lessen the amount of energy they expend for self-protection,” he notes.22 When a leader demonstrates vulnerability, that invites people to form stronger bonds that will help carry them through rough times. 

Blake also posits practical reasons for staying vulnerable. Growing a culture of vulnerability can increase engagement, retention, and innovation. In the long run, a culture of psychological safety empowers people to do better work. 

Share your story 

Great leaders cast a narrative for others to follow. But it’s not a myth that you create—it’s sharing your real struggles and triumphs with the people you work with. At BuildWitt one of our values is “Transparency Wins.” By sharing your life stories, you invite the people you work with to get to know you. When work relationships become friendships, workers are more free to share their stories with you and with each other. 

Jeff Gothelf of the Harvard Business Review writes about how stories build trust: “It’s normal to wince at the idea of baring your failures in front of colleagues . . . but true humility shows capacity for growth and learning. It builds trust in your story precisely because it demonstrates that you’re not claiming to have all the answers, and that you’re willing to learn and adjust course as needed. In my experience, nothing creates a tighter connection between you and your audience than acknowledging that you’re standing on others’ shoulders, and you’re not going to get everything right all the time.”23

Ask for help

Dave Turin of TV’s Gold Rush knows what it’s like to be stuck in a tricky situation with few resources. His teams are often in rural Alaska, far from conveniences, with big problems to solve. That’s why he encourages leaders to ask for help from their team when they need it. Turin explains, “Being confident enough to ask for help . . . doesn’t really fit within the ‘tough’ American business world, but it can save you face, as well as time and money.”24

Step seven: speak up

A lot of situations where someone becomes suicidal or depressed may seem to come out of nowhere. However, if you look, the signs were beginning to show up in their work, actions, and communication. In construction, addressing behavior and performance problems in a disciplinary manner has been the status quo. However, addressing these problems from a performance-based standpoint right off the bat (without taking into account what that person may be dealing with on a psychological and emotional level) can make some problems worse.

Michelle Walker, VP of Finance for SSC Underground and Chair of the CIASP, talks about the importance of speaking up when you see a change in behavior. During her conversation with BuildWitt CEO Aaron Witt, she outlined a scenario where an employee begins to be late, have near misses, and not show up. As the leader, you address it from a performance standpoint. But that just drives the person deeper into the cycle. Instead, she suggests asking, “Hey, you know, is something going on? We've noticed a real change in your behavior.” She goes on to explain:

“Most times, given the opportunity, people will talk about it. They’re not going to be the ones to bring it up, especially in this industry, and they’re not going to be the ones to come and ask for help. But if you can be that one person who asks them if they need help or if something’s going on, my experience is that they’ll talk to you about it. It opens the door to be able to help somebody and connect them with care versus ignoring it or addressing it in a negative way and making the problem worse.”25

Every step we’ve listed here, from education to self-care, can help save lives. But when it comes to mental health, there’s absolutely no replacement—and never will be—for the genuine concern of a friend. Especially when that care shows through in your words and actions.

If you have even the slightest notion that someone you know is struggling, reach out to them. It could be your day to save a life and help put an end to suicide in construction.

 

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