A Closer Look at Mental Health and Suicide in the Glass Industry

By Ellen Rogers

As Seth Norman, co-founder and chief product officer with Tiatros, a San Francisco-based digital therapeutics for behavioral health company, explains it, the intersection of where stress, addiction and suicide come together is a serious problem—in general and also in the construction industry. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), construction has one of the highest suicide rates of all industries. These workers, including glaziers, metal workers, and other skilled laborers, are often faced with challenges, such as physical injuries that put them at risk of considering suicide or using pills, often opioids, for pain relief so they can get back to work. But drug use can lead to addiction and substance use disorder, among other mental health concerns. Many groups and organizations across the construction industry have recognized the severity of these situations and are working to prevent suicide and addiction, among other concerns.

Norman, along with three other subject matter experts, led the Ironworker Management Progressive Action Cooperative Trust (IMPACT) webinar series, “The Addiction and Suicide Epidemic: A Practical Guide for Leading Change,” which took place in April. Panelists included Dustin Kieschnick, Psy.D research psychologist and Tiatros Inc. consultant; Mahima Muralidharan, Psy.D chief psychology officer with Tiatros; and Kim P. Norman, M.D., UCSF distinguished professor of psychiatry and Tiatros advisor. Panelists provided a practical guide for combating and preventing the addiction and suicide epidemic.

Warning Signs

According to the session, the construction and extraction industries have the second-highest rate of suicide, at 53.3 per 100,000 workers. And for men between the ages of 25 and 54, suicide is the second biggest cause of death. In addition, construction workers are responsible for the highest percentage of opioid-related deaths in several states; these rates have steadily increased during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kim Norman addressed some of the warning signs that can indicate risk of self-harm. He said these can include:
• Expressions of negative emotions, such as statements of feeling hopeless; expressions of excessive guilt, shame, or failure; and excessive and/or ongoing declarations of rage or anger;
• Demonstration of destructive behaviors, such as increased drug or alcohol use; neglect of personal welfare, including physical appearance; anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness or frequent mood swings; lost interest in work, hobbies or personal relationships; or violent or careless behavior; and
• Signs of planned intention to commit self-harm, such as giving away prized possessions; getting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, or preparing a will; statement of intention to hurt themselves or that they are looking for ways to hurt themselves; and increased unnecessary risks to their health and safety.

He also pointed out that a significant number of deaths registered as accidents are actually sub-intentional suicides. This would mean, for example, placing one’s self in a “vulnerable position with greatly increased risk of death; participation in behaviors that are not directly intended to end life, but clearly jeopardize health and longevity.”

In these cases, he suggested looking for behaviors such as accident proneness or statements of carelessness. Other signs to look for include disregard for established safety measures, prudence, or common sense; increased use of drugs and alcohol; and increased desire for violent physical confrontations.

Have the Tough Conversations

Kieschnick followed that discussion with a look at how to have a conversation with someone about suicide and some key principles to keep in mind. The intent of such discussions should be to try and increase the person’s sense of belonging. He said, there is no expectation for you to be a mental health professional and access level of risk; it’s simply having a conversation when you start to see some red flags.

He added that the expectation is not to say it perfectly, but to show authenticity and care throughout the process.

Steps to take include:
1. Identifying the specific behavior or change in behavior that you’re concerned about. He said it’s often more helpful to be specific about the behaviors you’ve noticed. This will show that you care and are paying attention. He suggested staying away from general statements such as “is everything okay?” Being specific about a behavior, he said, helps drive a discussion.

2. Rolling with the resistance. He explained that despite best efforts, some people will still not be ready to talk. It’s important to let them know they don’t have to if they don’t want to, but you’re there for them if they do.

3. For those who are willing to talk, he said to ask directly and without judgement, but also listen; show them you’re listening to exactly what they are saying. Be supportive and non-judgmental.

4. Normalize what they are going through. Let them know they are not alone. For example, you can share something you’ve been through, but keep in mind what you share should be in line with what they are going through.

5. Get them to the appropriate level of help, such as providing resources and other options. This can be a suicide hotline, an AA meeting, etc. Know what you’re willing to support and how much; you can accompany the person if you’re comfortable doing it, but there isn’t an obligation for that.

“The dialogue is never perfect,” he said, “but if you can convey that you care and you’re authentic and kind that comes through more than any of the words you choose to do it with …”

Trauma-Informed Leadership

Muralidharan followed with a discussion about trauma and being a trauma-informed leader. She said a lot of people think the word trauma stereotypically belongs in the category of abuse, but it can be more pervasive than some clinically diagnosed conditions. She explained trauma is one event or a series of events that exceeds a person’s capacity to cope emotionally; it’s not having the emotional resources that you typically rely on to make [a problem] work. For example, losing co-workers to suicide or addiction can create trauma.

“Talking about trauma can create a clear path toward healing,” she said.

In speaking of what makes a trauma-informed leader, she said this is someone who acknowledges trauma and does everything they can to minimize re-traumatization. “It’s someone who brings evidence-based thinking and solutions to the team … educate yourself about the best … solutions that work for those who need additional help.”

Some of the ways leaders can build and encourage trauma-informed teams include:
• Demonstrating a comfort with naming difficult subjects directly;
• Establishing a routine for checking in with your team;
• Owning the fact that you don’t have all the answers;
• Inviting your team to help brainstorm ideas for helping struggling teammates;
• Experimenting with different modes of communication; and
• Establishing boundaries as a leader. In other words, don’t promise what’s beyond your ability or control.

In closing the discussion, Seth Norman added that when it comes to having these difficult conversations, “you get the A for effort. At the end of the day, what will come through is how much you care. People will appreciate that effort and connection.”

If you or someone you know needs immediate assistance, please contact:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
1-800-273-TALK
(1-800-273-8255)
or text “HELLO” to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @
USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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