IUPAT Helping Hand
Working in the building and construction trades is a challenging career. There are high productivity demands on the workforce to meet deadlines, as well as working conditions that can often be an extreme danger if strict safety guidelines aren't followed.
Yet, there are other risks construction workers face in the industry – suicide and substance use disorder.
Help is Available
If you or someone you know is suffering, you are not alone.
Here are the warning signs that someone you know may be at immediate risk for suicide.
The following three should prompt you to immediately call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or a mental health professional.
Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself.
Communication may be veiled, such as: “I just can’t take it anymore.” or “What’s the use?”
Looking for ways to kill oneself,
such as searching online or obtaining a gun.
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
Other behaviors may also indicate serious risk – especially if the behavior is new, has increased; and/or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change.
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings (SPRC)
Resources for Additional Information and Guidance
Before we can understand why suicide is so prevalent in construction, let’s take a look at the national picture. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the Government of Canada:
- Each year, 42,773 Americans die by suicide (an average of 117 suicides per day). In Canada, there are over 4,000 deaths by suicide each with an average of 10 people per day.
- For every suicide, there are 25 attempts
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the 9th leading cause in Canada.
- Men die by suicide 3.5x more often than women
- White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2014
- The rate of suicide is highest in middle age – white men in particular
Research from the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, an organization focused on suicide prevention, has found that industries with the highest risk of suicide have the following factors:
- A male dominated workforce
- A widespread substance abuse problem
- A shift work system
- Access to a lethal means for suicide
- Fearlessness in a risk-taking environment
With these statistics and key factors of suicide in mind, the connection to what is being called an epidemic of suicide in the construction industry becomes more clear, especially when you consider the fact that the construction workforce is nearly 91 percent male, and 64 percent white.
Bob Swanson, retired president of Swanson & Youngdale, a longtime IUPAT paint and drywall contractor in Minnesota, and a suicide prevention advocate for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), draws an even more complete picture of connection between suicide and construction.
“As a worker in construction, there is the nearly constant uncertainty about the next job and your finances,” said Swanson to the Journal. “There is also the fact that people who are suffering from mental issues that are making them depressed or suicidal need structure in their lives. The work schedule in construction can change on a dime which can cause stress. Also, our line of work often calls for travel. If you’re working on the road in a town where you don’t know anyone, and you lack the support system you have in place at home, alcohol and drug abuse can become a problem which makes the troubles you’re going through even worse.”
Swanson became involved with the suicide prevention cause after losing his son to suicide in 2009. He was 33 and lived with bipolar disorder. Swanson now speaks with groups throughout the country and explained that after years of grief, anger and guilt, he decided that he could make a difference by telling his own story. “Suicide loss survivors feel so alone because there’s a stigma and shame about mental illness and suicide. This is a different kind of death, not a simple passing, so people treat suicide loss survivors in a much different way. I’m working to change that and hopefully save some lives at the same time.”
Keys to Suicide Prevention and Treatment
Swanson believes that education and being proactive for treatment are the means to bringing the count of suicide victims down. “We need to make people aware of just how big this problem is and how many lives we lose every day to suicide. We have to attack the disease, not the victims. Men in construction have the ‘tough guy’ job site mentality that they don’t need any help from anyone. That has to change. If we see someone with problems on the job, we should reach out to them and ask if they need help. That has to come not just from the employers, but from their fellow workers, as well.”
Another factor to prevention is convincing those that live with conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder that they are not to blame. They are suffering from a disease, just like anyone who is suffering from cancer or heart disease and needs treatment.
Substance Use Disorder is Taking its Toll in Construction
The construction industry has an increased risk for injury over almost all other industries. Injuries from the physical strain of work required, and heavy equipment and tools, not only make huge economic impact on construction, but they have created a lethal epidemic as well.
If a construction worker cannot be on the job site because of pain or injury, then they do not get paid. It is this basic fact that has greatly contributed to the rise of the use of opioids and other prescription drugs to treat pain so that men and women in the trades can get another day of work in despite their injuries.
Unfortunately this has led to some tragic numbers in the construction industry when it comes to substance use disorder.
A 2015 estimate by Chicago-based insurer CNA found that “15.1% of construction workers across various specializations have engaged in illicit drug use, including both legal and illegal [drugs].”
Significantly, CNA did not filter the estimate by specific drugs or trades, though it noted that opioids accounted for 20% of total spending on prescription drugs in the construction industry, about 5% to 10% greater than that of other industries.
Another 2015 estimate by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration indicated that 11.6% of full-time construction workers (1.1 million people) had used illicit drugs within the past month.
Warning Signs of Substance Use Disorder
Drug addiction symptoms or behaviors include, among others:
- Feeling that you have to use the drug regularly — daily or even several times a day
- Having intense urges for the drug that block out any other thoughts
- Over time, needing more of the drug to get the same effect
- Taking larger amounts of the drug over a longer period of time than you intended
- Making certain that you maintain a supply of the drug
- Spending money on the drug, even though you can't afford it
- Not meeting obligations and work responsibilities, or cutting back on social or recreational activities because of drug use
- Continuing to use the drug, even though you know it's causing problems in your life or causing you physical or psychological harm
- Doing things to get the drug that you normally wouldn't do, such as stealing
- Driving or doing other risky activities when you're under the influence of the drug
- Spending a good deal of time getting the drug, using the drug or recovering from the effects of the drug
- Failing in your attempts to stop using the drug
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop taking the drug
Recognizing unhealthy drug use in family members
Sometimes it's difficult to distinguish normal teenage moodiness or angst from signs of drug use. Possible indications that your teenager or other family member is using drugs include:
- Problems at school or work – frequently missing school or work, a sudden disinterest in school activities or work, or a drop in grades or work performance
- Physical health issues – lack of energy and motivation, weight loss or gain, or red eyes
- Neglected appearance – lack of interest in clothing, grooming or looks
- Changes in behavior – exaggerated efforts to bar family members from entering his or her room or being secretive about where he or she goes with friends; or drastic changes in behavior and in relationships with family and friends
- Money issues – sudden requests for money without a reasonable explanation; or your discovery that money is missing or has been stolen or that items have disappeared from your home, indicating maybe they're being sold to support drug use
Get Help and Find a Treatment Center Near You, a Friend or a Loved One
National Helpline – United States
1-800-662-4357 (HELP) or 1-800-487-4889
Free and confidential information in English and Spanish for individuals and family members facing substance use disorder and mental health issues. 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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