NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — For many construction workers, waking up early, putting on a hard hat and going to work is a regular routine, but under their seemingly tough surface, Peter Church said more people are struggling than it appears.
“Being in construction my whole life, I understand these folks, and I was most of those guys out on the field on the jobs. I did that work,” said Church, who is now based in Nashville as the senior safety manager for JE Dunn Construction. “Folks struggle quite a bit in this industry.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), construction has the highest suicide rate compared to all other industries and has for many years. In 2016, the suicide rate for men and women in construction was 49.4 per 100,000 — almost twice the total suicide rate for civilian working men in 32 states.
Researchers are still working to fully understand why people in the construction industry die from suicide at a higher rate than other industries, but there are some clear ties to common risk factors like drug and alcohol abuse and high rates of mental health issues.
Another study conducted by the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan in 2020 found that 83% of workers in the construction industry had experienced some form of moderate to severe mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
“Suicide, unfortunately, has touched me personally throughout my life, and a few of those folks were from work, guys I had worked with,” Church said. “I didn’t know the signs, especially when I was younger. We weren’t aware. So being their voice, I really push for awareness on a personal and professional level.”
‘They have to work through all sorts of challenges’
As a teenager in 1988, Church joined a traveling roof and siding crew, where he got his start in the construction industry. He went on to build custom homes and spent several years erecting high rises in New York City before the work began to wear on him.
Among the unique challenges he saw his colleagues face and experienced himself were demanding schedules, lengthy periods of time away from loved ones and hard labor that resulted in many persistent injuries — something Church said comes naturally with the job.
“These guys are trying to meet schedules and demands and they have to work through all sorts of challenges, whether they tear something in their shoulder and they suffer for months,” he said. “But they have to go to work every day. They have to feed their families. A lot of folks in the industry, that’s all they know.”
As an industry with high injury rates, things can “spiral out of control quickly” when someone gets prescribed strong pain medication, Church explained. It’s an observation that is backed up by another CDC study noting construction workers are disproportionately prone to opioid use disorder.
In the 2021 study, workers compensation data from 27 states showed that mining and construction workers were more likely than workers in other industries to receive opioids when receiving a prescription for pain medication.
In turn, substance abuse has been linked to increased thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues. But Church said it also becomes tricky when it comes to reaching out for help, with “old-school” stereotypes sometimes standing in the way.
“There is that ‘tough guy’ mentality, especially for the older-school guys, and we have a very large Spanish workforce, and they kind of have that old-school mentality,” Church said. “They’re just there to provide for their families, and when you can’t anymore, it really weighs heavy on a man’s heart.”
‘A lot of guys are afraid to speak up’
Traditionally, Church said men in the industry have had a hard time starting conversations about mental health and suicide. According to the CDC, mental health issues are not only underreported among men, but men are more likely to die by suicide.
“A lot of guys are afraid to speak up and ask those questions,” Church said. “They may work with a guy every day, 50 hours a week for the last 10 years and they’re afraid to ask him how he’s feeling about something.”
However, it’s those conversations that Church believes could save lives. In the 10 years since he shifted to the safety aspect of the field, Church has aimed to bring more awareness to the topic of mental health and create a culture where workers feel comfortable reaching out for help.
He recently spoke at the Tennessee Safety and Health Conference and has plastered the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline on nearly every project possible in hopes that more people in the industry will speak up or offer a listening ear when needed.
“When you start to see them acting a little out of character — maybe they’re a very talkative person and they don’t want to talk anymore. Simple clues like that should trigger you just to ask,” he said. “Maybe that’s all they needed was for somebody to ask how they’re doing.”
In recent years, many organizations have also led efforts to bring more awareness to suicide rates among construction workers, with a group of volunteers launching the inaugural Construction Suicide Prevention Week in September 2020.
The group continues to raise awareness about the unique challenges construction workers face and how it can lead to suicide each year. To find out more information about suicide prevention, as well as further resources, click here.
“A lot of us are very proud men and women, and it’s hard sometimes to ask for help,” Church said. “I think awareness is the key. Just being aware of the signs and having the courage to speak up. I think that could save a lot of lives.”
The 988 Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources. Anyone can call or text 988 to be connected with a mental health professional.