In the United States, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) commemorates its tenth anniversary on September 10th. This coincides with the annual World Suicide Prevention Day. The Action Alliance is the nation’s public-private partnership for suicide prevention. The Action Alliance has strategic partnerships with more than 250 organizations to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.
Identifying the need for industry-wide suicide prevention
Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the mass destruction wreaked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I become sensitized to the lingering effects of disasters on the psyche of construction workers (like first responders) following mass traumatic events. It became clear that mental health awareness and suicide prevention needed to become embedded in core safety, health and wellness culture in the workplace — and at the jobsite.
I was an inaugural appointee to the Action Alliance’s Workplace Task Force in 2010 with a charge to address suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2014 I partnered with Dr. Sally-Spencer Thomas to conceive a suicide prevention initiative for the construction industry in which we recognized an abundance of risk factors which warranted designating the entire industry as a “high risk population”.
Launching the Workplace Task Force
This included launching a construction subcommittee to the Workplace Task Force. Spencer-Thomas shared her observations of “successes and lessons learned from pioneering efforts in Australia and the UK”. Spencer-Thomas specifically mentioned construction sector initiatives, “MATES in Construction and Mates in Mind as hopeful models for our emerging program in the US”.
This initiative preceded any public health data: the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not complete their first study on suicide by occupation until July of 2016. Sadly, but not surprisingly, this report (and subsequent ones) confirmed that suicide risk runs highest among the workers of the construction and extraction industries.
How the US construction industry is currently addressing suicide prevention
Since 2014, the US construction industry has increasingly embraced the need to incorporate mental health and suicide prevention into safety and health culture, programs and practices. Major elements of the growing culture shift include the following major representative developments and infrastructure:
- The development of the Construction Industry Blueprint for Suicide Prevention in 2015 which was a framework for cultural change.
- The formation of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention in October 2016. The website is a repository of various resources to help construction company and other industry stakeholders address mental health and suicide prevention.
- Coverage in Forbes in May 2016 exclaiming “what construction workers could teach other industries about mental health awareness”.
- The Construction Subcommittee of the Action Alliance’s Workplace Task Force was awarded the Gary E. Bird Horizon Award by the International Risk Management Institute in November 2016 for their innovative suicide prevention program.
- Almost 25 Construction Industry Suicide Prevention Summits across the US between 2016-2019.
- The development of the National Guidelines for Workplace Suicide Prevention in 2019 led by Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas.
- Inclusion of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention in the 2020 Safe States Alliance public health conferences on public health private-public partnerships.
Catching up with the UK and Australia
The US construction industry has been closing the once wide gap on suicide prevention compared to the efforts in the UK and Australia and the initiatives that launched in 2014 have since morphed into a movement.
“The US construction industry is definitely making strides in the right direction when it comes to suicide prevention. The pace of the evolution in the US has been impressive, and we still have a long way to go,” asserts Spencer-Thomas.
Spencer-Thomas believes the biggest area for growth is “the establishment of formal peer support programs in construction. Peer support, especially efforts based in labor unions, apprenticeship programs or professional associations, is critical”. Spencer-Thomas concludes “peers are often the first to know when someone is having a hard time. Peers can be that link in the chain of survival when they offer coworkers compassionate listening and a warm handoff to vetted resources”.
Impacts of COVID-19
Suicide prevention efforts in the US have been slowed but not thwarted by the global pandemic. Many experts believe the pandemic underscores the need to continue pushing harder for more systemic changes to mental health and suicide prevention in the US.
One of these experts is Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health. (Gruttadaro will be a featured presenter at the Make A Difference Summit US in association with Mind Share Partners on October 15th). Gruttadaro said “before the global pandemic, workplace mental health was growing at a fast clip, now it is growing even faster with employers worried about employees.”
The US is experiencing what Gruttadaro describes as “a ‘trifecta’ of extreme challenges with the virus, tensions over racial injustice, and an economic downturn”. According to Gruttadaro, “data shows a tripling of people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety and models showing a projected surge in deaths from suicide and drug overdoses.” This promises to place tremendous stress on an already under-resourced mental health care system”.
The US construction industry has gained valuable insights from peers in the UK and Australia on workplace mental wellbeing and suicide prevention. Suicide prevention champions in the US welcome greater international collaboration to share approaches, resources and tools to develop new best practices. We can all make a difference by teaching construction workers and their families about mental wellbeing and suicide prevention.
Learn more about how US industry CEO’s are approaching staff mental health and wellbeing support by attending Make a Difference Summit US in association with Mind Share Partners. It takes place on Thursday October 15th from 9.30-5.30pm EST.
Other digital events also coming up: Workplace Wellbeing by Design UK which will take place September 14-18th; MAD World Summit UK, which will take place on October 8th and Make a Difference Summit Asia will take place November 11th.
About the author
Cal Beyer is Vice President of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy Company, in the United States. He has worked in or supported the construction sector since 1996 as a safety and risk management professional. Since 2010 he has served with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and on the Executive Committee since 2016. He serves on the Expert Advisory Group of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health. Cal was instrumental in the launch of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. He is a Certified Wellness Practitioner though the National Wellness Institute.