OPINION – Wearing your heart on your sleeve can save lives and help build Texas

Published 12:39 am Wednesday, September 22, 2021

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By James Robles and Greg Hansch, LMSW

On each of the commercial construction job sites JE Dunn runs in Texas, safety for the teams and trade partners is priority number one. Beyond what is mandated, there’s a tradition of having each worker pin a laminated photo of loved ones to their safety vest so everyone can remember who they need to get home safely for each and every day. But safety doesn’t stop at workers’ physical wellbeing.

The fact is that construction workers are statistically at a higher risk for mental health issues than virtually every other profession—with the second-highest rate of suicide at 53.3 per 100,000 workers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[1], nearly one third of all suicides in 2012 were workers in the construction and extraction occupational group. That’s astonishing.

Based on mental health research and our experience in the field, workers may shame themselves for experiencing anxiety, distress, depressive and suicidal feelings because it contradicts the idea that a “strong” and predominantly male workforce should not be affected by its emotions. But validating those feelings—and giving them tools to cope—can help them seek professional guidance or even reach out to someone about how they are feeling.

Construction is not only a physically demanding job, but extremely mentally demanding. Mental wellness is imperative. But these workers living with mental illness can experience significant stigma, which can worsen their mental health and increase their risk of suicide. Public and personal perception of mental illness can discourage a construction worker from discussing his or her concerns with family, friends or coworkers before seeking the appropriate care. Non-construction workers experience similar stigma, but the culture, and even upbringing, of construction workers may influence their receptivity to receiving mental health services.

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month—a time to raise awareness on this stigmatized, and often taboo, topic. In addition to shifting public perception, we use this month to spread hope and vital information to people affected by suicide. Our shared goal is ensuring that individuals, friends and families have access to the resources they need to discuss suicide prevention and to seek help.

While suicide prevention is important to address year-round, Suicide Prevention Awareness Month provides a dedicated time to come together with collective passion and strength around a difficult subject. The truth is, we can all benefit from honest conversations about mental health conditions and suicide—just one conversation can save a life.

That’s why at JE Dunn job sites this month, workers will be invited to post stickers on prominently placed spot with color coding to indicate that they have struggled with mental health, if they have someone at home who has struggled, or if they have lost someone to suicide. They are also going to be providing hard hat stickers with a QR code that links to an internal page of resources for those struggling. The idea is to help lift the stigma that can be so debilitating and to build a framework for understanding, discussing and seeking help for mental health issues. On September 8 during National Suicide Prevention Week, we’ll also stand in solidarity across Texas and the nation in our offices and worksites for a minute of silence.

Commercial construction and mental health might seem at different ends of the vocational spectrum. But as we look at our missions, we realize that we share a common purpose. JE Dunn exists to enrich lives through inspired people and places, and National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Texas is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all individuals living with mental illness and their families.

If we can all remember that we share a desire to improve lives, and that each of us can help the other by normalizing the idea that it’s not a weakness to have mental health challenges, then we can all make a big difference together and build something beautiful: a Texas workforce that is well, strong and here for the future.

We invite you to join us in encouraging these critical conversations to destigmatize mental health at your work site, workplace and home. You might just save a life.

James Robles, Regional Safety Director at JE Dunn Construction (www.jedunn.com) and Greg Hansch, LMSW, Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas. Resources at: www.nami.org/Suicide-Prevention-Awareness-Month