Mental Health in Construction: How to Combat the Rising Rates of Suicide

Mental health issues have long been a problem in the construction industry. A 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found that workers in construction have one of the highest suicide rates compared to other industries. In fact, their suicide rate is nearly four times higher than the general population.

As a result, the CDC in 2020 requested a weeklong suicide prevention safety stand-down from September 6-10. The weeklong awareness initiative pushed construction industry members to discuss the challenges that construction workers face.

“Work-related stress can have severe impacts on mental health and without proper support may lead to substance abuse and even suicide,” says Jim Frederick, deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “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.”

In tandem with the CDC’s initiative, a group of volunteers from across the construction industry came together in 2020 and launched Construction Suicide Prevention Week, which ran from September 5-9.

The week is dedicated to raising awareness about suicide in the construction industry and the steps needed to prevent it. In 2021, more than 68,000 workers from 32 states registered their participation in Construction Suicide Prevention Week.

On Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, a group of construction industry panelists, including Karena Lorek, OSHA Kansas City Area office area director, John Gaal, worker wellness director for Missouri Works Initiative, and Christopher Rodman, CPWR opioid projects coordinator, participated in a webinar to share information about efforts to highlight the signs and symptoms of mental health issues.

The webinar underscored the growing need to address mental health in the construction industry. Jessica Bunting, webinar host, Research to Practice director and CIASP Board of Trustees member, says that since 2020, 42% of construction workers have struggled with mental health or substance abuse. Additionally, male construction workers have a suicide rate 65% higher than all U.S. male workers.

The main contributing factors to these increased rates are sleep deprivation, alcohol addiction, drug abuse, anxiety disorders and depression, says Gaal.

With these increased rates, it is imperative to look for suicidal warning signs. These signs include direct statements such as “I’m going to kill myself” and indirect statements like “I’m going away forever.” Other noticeable signs are:

  • Hopelessness
  • Rage
  • Feeling trapped
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Increased alcohol/drug usage
  • Poor sleep
  • Depression

If you notice any of those signs, take the time to pull the person aside and have a conversation.

“Listen to what they have to say,” says Gaal. “Let them open up. You might have to ask some prompting questions but let them open up … Make sure that you show them that you care. The science shows us that if you intervene with someone’s suicide plan, up to 94% of people abandon the plan.”

OSHA also has a five-step suicide prevention model that includes remaining aware, paying attention, reaching out, taking action and learning more.

The CDC states that there are various circumstances that can help prevent suicide. These include a strong sense of cultural identity, effective coping and problem-solving skills, support from partners and family, the feeling of being connected, quality physical and behavioral healthcare and reduced access to lethal means.

When it comes to the construction industry, there are several steps companies can take to create a caring culture. These steps include:

  • Leadership support/engagement
  • Injury management programs
  • Encouraging peer support relationships
  • Personal financial management
  • Gun safety education
  • Substance abuse education
  • Build in veteran protective factors
  • Confirm access to benefits
  • Train managers/supervisors in people management skills

If you have thoughts of suicide, get help now. Research shows that people are happy to have an advocate, says Rodman. If you are someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

You are also more than welcome to watch the webinar that discusses signs and symptoms of mental health issues: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1K-_mv9Hdg

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