Sept. 4 through Sept. 10 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and many groups have pitched in to raise awareness of mental health issues in the construction industry.
And it is an issue. The CDC reported in 2020 that construction and extraction industries have the highest rates of suicide by occupational group, even as the rate of suicide among the working-age population has increased overall.
As a part of the week raising awareness, Travelers Insurance has distributed jobsite posters highlighting the major warning signs of someone who may be feeling depressed or suicidal. The poster displays a QR code to connect workers to online resources for more information.
Here, Construction Dive speaks with Dr. Marcos Iglesias, chief medical director for Travelers, and Jennifer Lee, vice president and national practice lead of Travelers’ construction chapter, about how important awareness is and how mental health is a part of jobsite safety.
The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: How serious a problem is mental health in the construction industry?
MARCOS IGLESIAS: First of all, suicide overall in the country was a leading cause of death in 2021. And unfortunately, construction workers have a very high rate of suicide.
There are probably a lot of reasons for that. One of them is high incidence of substance use disorders, not only drugs, but also heavy alcohol consumption among construction workers. You also have a workforce that is predominantly male, and men tend to be less likely to seek help.
People have described construction workers as being stoic. Self-reliant. They're probably not the people that rush to get diagnosed with a mental health condition when there are problems.
There's also a variety of psychosocial issues that construction workers face that may put them at higher risk, not only for mental health problems, but especially for suicide.
Think about changes in projects, disruption of ties and social circles, separation for weeks or months at a time from their family and loved ones. There's sometimes an instability of work and unemployment cycles.
And, lastly, sometimes they have a higher rate of musculoskeletal injuries and sometimes those are self-treated with drugs or alcohol. But many times too, they are prescribed drugs that end up causing a pattern of continuation even after the injury gets better.
Where can an employer or coworker start to help? What can they do to combat those issues?
JENNIFER LEE: The bottom line is for a contractor to start treating mental health the same way that they do physical health. So, we know the industry today has some common phrases, "We want to send everyone home at night, safe to their families." To incorporate that mental health piece as well would be really important.
So what can they do? That's all about raising awareness around this issue. That includes educating their workers and management. It's about creating safe spaces. This is really about people. It's not about a construction company or a contractor or specific organization. We're really talking about people.
This is an issue where groups have raised awareness for a while now. Are things getting better?
LEE: I think that’s tough to say. It’s not like an injury reporting system.
IGLESIAS: I think there's a couple of ways of looking at it. I don't know that we have the data to support the idea, at least when it comes to suicide or suicide attempts, that things are getting better yet. But we do see a lot of movement in the industry to destigmatize mental health problems to provide resources from the top down.
So the awareness is there. I think we're seeing a lot of contractors putting these topics into their huddles and into their team meetings. So, we're optimistic that we're on the right track and that things will turn around, but I don't think we have the statistics yet. The latest statistics are usually several years old.
Some things that you touched on earlier, like scheduling changes, are part of the nature of the industry. Is there any guidance for contractors keeping workers mentally safe when those issues are tough to avoid?
LEE: It really comes down to the awareness of those factors that you just brought up. So, a company is asking for instance, a team of people to travel somewhere for a project. They're away from their family or friends and that network of support. Then the awareness factor here should be brought in to help that team really feel like a team, feel like a supportive team and create that safe space. It's important to help people to understand there's a network there, even though they're away from home.
Editor’s note: If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support.