PHILADELPHIA -- It's no secret that mental health conditions and substance abuse rates have risen significantly throughout the U.S. What's much less visible is the severity of these issues within the construction industry. One in five construction professionals struggle with a mental health condition, the rate of substance abuse among this population is nearly double the national average and the sector has the second-highest suicide rate among all industries.
Facing formidable statics like these, the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA), Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters (EASRCC) and Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council (BTC) are joining forces to fight what has been coined the silent epidemic - and build a healthier industry.
Shattering the stigma
One of the major hurdles deterring construction professionals from getting the help they need is a deeply rooted stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse.
"Construction is largely a male-dominated industry, and men are generally less likely to talk about their emotions to begin with," explains Morghan Terry, LMFT, CEAP, clinical director at MHC, a leader in behavioral workplace health care and a GBCA partner. "On top of that, construction workers typically pride themselves on having a tough exterior. The common perception is that having a behavioral health concern would be seen as a weakness. They worry about how it will impact their work relationships and work status."
She says the stigma around substance abuse in the industry is even stronger and that instead of addiction being viewed as a brain disease or public health problem, it's more often seen as a moral or criminal issue.
"The stigma is 100 percent real, and it's exacerbated in the world of construction," adds Joseph Obuchowicz, CEBS, Fund Director for the Carpenters Benefit Funds of Philadelphia. "I always tell this story that before COVID, we would host in-person seminars about benefit awareness showcasing all of our partners and vendors. When you would look around the room, people were at every table, except for the behavioral health table. No one wanted to be associated with that."
This stigma is exactly why GBCA, EASRCC and BTC are guiding the industry to rethink the way substance abuse and mental health are traditionally viewed.
"Conditions like depression, anxiety and addiction too often take a back seat to injuries you can actually see. In reality, behavioral health is just as important as physical health and safety, and it's time people embrace it as such," says Angela Hendrix, GBCA's director of training and workforce development who leads the association's Safety Committee. "Shifting the industry culture starts with taking the issues that are seen as taboo and turning them into frequent, highly visible topics of conversation."
Putting a spotlight on mental health and substance abuse was the idea behind a recent safety "stand down" that halted construction work at one of Gilbane Building Company's active job sites in Philadelphia. The pause enabled leaders from Gilbane, GBCA, EASRCC and BTC to talk directly to employees about the importance of mental health and substance abuse awareness. It's one of many examples of how industry groups and construction firms are taking action.
"We can't allow our colleagues and friends to suffer in silence," continues Hendrix. "We're focused on ensuring the right supports are in place so people throughout the industry can recognize when they - or someone else - need help and how to get it."
Education, awareness and accessibility
The crux of this industry-wide effort is a series of Toolbox Talks created by GBCA, EASRCC and BTC that cover alcohol abuse, suicide, empathy and substance abuse. Not only do these resources help facilitate these conversations in the workplace, they also educate individuals on how to spot the warning signs of behavioral health and addiction issues, provide action steps and offer pathways for accessing help.
"Not knowing how, where or when to ask for help can be a major barrier in seeking treatment," says Terry. "It's not uncommon for counselors like us to get phone calls from construction professionals in their 50s who have been struggling for years and finally take the first step to reach out. Sometimes they just didn't know who to call. In other cases, they put off asking for help for so long that they eventually find themselves in an all-out crisis."
Now, with QR codes on work T-shirts and hard hat stickers that direct workers to the most up-to-date information and assistance related to mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention, help is never more than a scan or click away.
"Education and accessibility are key," says Obuchowicz, stressing how important it is for individuals to know that if they are going through a hard time, there are resources and professionals who can help them. "Sometimes it feels like we're hitting people over the head with this information, but they need to know we're here to help and guide them. Sure, they may not be hanging out at the behavioral health table during our benefits seminars, but they might be going online and exploring the support that's available. That's what counts."
He also notes that for all the uncertainty COVID-19 has brought, it has also provided a silver lining in the form of telehealth. The nature of construction jobs with long hours and time away from home has historically made it challenging for workers to find time for behavioral health-care appointments. Obuchowicz calls telehealth a game changer, as does Laura Manion, LPC, a senior care manager at MHC who played an integral part in building the industry's new Toolbox Talks.
"Telehealth has absolutely made treatment more accessible for construction workers," Manion says. "They can take appointments from their car during a lunch break or squeeze them in whenever or wherever it works for them. From a clinical perspective, we have found virtual therapy just as effective as in-person visits, and the convenience helps ensure no one misses a beat."
On a broader scale, Manion adds that it can be challenging to navigate the behavioral health care system as a whole, which is why the campaign resources were designed to be simple and easy to digest.
"The fundamental premise of this work is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health," she notes. "Taking the complexity out of behavioral health makes it more comfortable to address and easier for people to request help when they need it."
As far as enacting change, "any time leaders in the industry join together to increase awareness and education, it sends a really powerful message," Terry adds. "It creates an opportunity that allows a shift in perception and understanding to occur. By encouraging open conversations and making information, tools and support available at a larger scale, GBCA and its partners are well-positioned to move the needle on mental health and substance abuse in the construction industry."
To learn more about this initiative, visit https://gbca.com/services/safety/mental-health-substance-abuse-awareness/.
As one of America's oldest trade associations, established in 1891, General Building Contractors Association (GBCA) advances the union commercial, industrial, and institutional construction industry in the Philadelphia region by serving members as the industry leader in labor relations, education, advocacy, safety, marketing, and networking opportunities.
Lauren Hanan brings nearly 20 years of marketing and communications experience to GBCA, and a wide range of knowledge of the Philadelphia region. Hanan directs all communications and touch points that position GBCA as the leading advocacy organization with the best trained, most skilled and most trusted construction professionals.