By Sally Spencer-Thomas
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, published its report on Occupation and Suicide July 1, 2016, the construction/extraction industry was stunned to discover that it was ranked No. 1 for highest numbers of suicide. For those of us in the suicide prevention field, this was confirmation of what we already knew: the construction industry is a perfect storm of risk factors for suicide.
Demographics of the workforce
Contrary to conventional wisdom, teens are not the group most at risk for suicide death. While certainly suicidal thoughts and behaviors often begin in adolescence, the group most at risk for suicide is men in the middle years. In fact, it’s often our toughest, bravest and most stoic people that become most at risk for suicide death. Their mental hardiness serves them well for managing everyday stressors and experiences that most people find frightening or too risky. However, when they experience overwhelming life challenges—such as divorce, the death of a loved one, trauma or the onset of a mental health challenge such as depression or bipolar condition—they tend to try to “white knuckle” it through on their own rather than reaching out for support or medical care. Subsequently, these health conditions and adverse life circumstances can often progress and become potentially fatal.
Transitory nature of construction work
One factor is the transitory nature of much of the work. Seasonal layoffs and economic downturns have massive consequences for employees. Not only does the financial uncertainty cause anxiety, but most lose access to insurance and other employee benefits like Employee Assistance Program, and thus mental health and substance abuse treatment become much harder to access. In addition, the constant shifting to new job sites prevents a sense of belonging within the work culture. Such bonds of community are known to help buffer distressing times. People who are desperate for work will often leave their families and live in less than ideal situations, like temporary camps, to help bring in money. These choices often leave them feeling even more disconnected and isolated.
Pain and injury
Due to the physical demands of construction work, chronic and acute pain problems are common. Pain interferes with job performance, job security, sleep and well-being. People who live with chronic pain often find their social circles diminished because they no longer enjoy activities that exacerbate their agony. Many who experience these complications are legally and appropriately given pain relieving medication to help them as their injuries heal. However, according to the 2015 report Prescription Opioid Abuse: Risk Factors and Solutions, by CNA, “Workers in the construction industry are especially at risk for prescription opioid abuse. It is estimated that 15.1 percent of construction workers across various specializations have engaged in illicit drug use, including both illegal and legal prescription drugs…compared to the average of other CAN-recognized industries combined, the opioid spend in construction is consistently 5 to 10 percent higher.”
Combined with the often culturally endorsed coping strategy of alcohol abuse to combat stress, construction workers can often find themselves battling an addiction that can have life threatening consequences. Only a fine, gray line exists between accidental overdose and suicide in many cases.
These are just some of the factors contributing to the suicide risk that many construction companies face. The good news is that there are practical prevention steps employers can take to mitigate this risk.
On World Suicide Prevention Day 2015, the Carson J Spencer Foundation in partnership with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and a Denver-based construction company called RK published the first Construction Industry Blueprint: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace (available at www.ConstructionWorkingMinds.org). This blueprint gives leaders tools to help build protective factors, to identify employees who are struggling early and link them to appropriate care, and to address mental health crises with compassion and empowerment.
People are a company’s biggest asset and investing in their psychological safety is an expression of a company’s value statement. Building a culture of care requires a mindset in addition to skills and tools. Employees who are looking out for one another’s well-being and their own self-care is essential to overall safety on the job—and that includes psychological safety.
When we teach employees about mental health literacy and connect them to mental health and other support resources before a crisis hits, they are much more likely to use these resources rather than trying to ride out the storm. When we build skills on how to have courageous conversations about addiction and suicide, they are much more likely to reach out to one another to provide support and connection.
Visit Construction Working Minds (www.ConstructionWorkingMinds.org) for more information about critical action steps companies can take to prevent suicide, because no one should die in isolation and despair.
Sally Spencer-Thomas, Ph.D., is the CEO and co-founder of the Carson J Spencer Foundation, Denver. As a clinical psychologist, mental health advocate, faculty member, and survivor of her brother’s suicide, Spencer-Thomas sees the issues of suicide prevention from many perspectives. One of the main programs of the Carson J Spencer Foundation is “Working Minds: Suicide Prevention in the Workplace,” the nation’s first comprehensive and sustained program designed to help employers with the successful prevention, intervention and crisis management of suicide (www.WorkingMinds.org).