Don’t Ignore This: It’s Okay to Talk About Mental Health

By Stephanie Staub

The numbers are staggering. Nearly 1 in 5 construction workers will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the construction industry has one of the highest rates of suicide across all industries (see related article on page 52). May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and statistics show mental illness is a major risk factor for suicide with nearly 90 percent of all suicide victims having some kind of mental health condition.

It is not surprising the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified feelings of anxiety and depression for everyone. Knowing how to spot the signs, and understanding it’s okay to talk about it are critical steps.

Recognition is Key

Construction workers are more likely to notice the obvious physical symptoms of depression such as exhaustion or changes in weight. It’s harder to see emotional signs because of the “tough guy” stereotype in the industry. Asking for help and opening up about emotions don’t come naturally to many in the construction industry, often resulting in many suffering in silence.

Depression and anxiety can look different on men and women; while women may clearly appear to be “down,” men are more likely to appear angry or irritable. Feeling sad, miserable or angry are typical healthy emotions, but if those feelings linger for more than two weeks, it could be a sign of depression.

Everyone experiences stress at different times in their lives. Anxiety, however, is fear something terrible will happen. Where stress triggers you to react to a situation that requires your attention, anxiety causes you to see threats and danger where it doesn’t actually exist, or causes you to react too strongly to the amount of threat in a situation.

Stop the Stigma

Initiatives, such as the Helping Hand program from the International Union of Painting and Allied Trades (IUPAT), provide resources and guidance on suicide prevention and substance abuse assistance.

Locally, IUPAT District Council 21 holds shop steward training to promote sigma-free peer support for members in need. The program covers important information such as how to initiate a conversation and safely encourage peers to seek mental health services. The program encourages talking with friends or family about feelings to help cope in challenging times.

As the Helping Hand program teaches, conversations should be two-sided. Be ready to listen without distractions. Ask open-ended questions to spur conversation such as “I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately. What are you doing to take care of yourself?” and “Are there things we can do together to help each other?”

Listen with compassion. Avoid saying things like “Stop worrying so much!” or “It will be fine.” Instead, people should be encouraged to validate others’ feelings by saying “I’m here for you,” “I understand,” “I’m listening.” Don’t promise confidentiality or offer ways to fix their problems. End the conversation with encouragement and plans to stay connected. It is important for them to know they are not alone, and you are there to help.

The industry has taken steps to reduce the stigma around mental health and to improve support, but there is more each of us can do, starting with being aware of the signs and encouraging people to talk. Do not underestimate the impact you can make just by talking to someone. You could change someone’s life.

Additional Resources

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available.

National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline

U.S. Suicide Prevention Lifeline

IUPAT Helping Hand

Stephanie Staub is the director of marketing for the Architectural Glass Institute in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

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