The construction industry, much like the name itself suggests, has a tendency to focus on successes, growth, production, and achievement – which is not uncommon, given the fact that all of those factors combined generally produce revenue. But for those who struggle with depression, isolation, and/or mental illness, what are the possible outcomes when even the best of conditions regarding success, growth, production, and achievement still lack the ability to produce the kind of sustaining joy that most human beings desire and work towards? Increased suicide rates in the construction industry is not a new problem, however, it is finally a topic that the industry is willing to talk about – and that alone is progress! According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the construction industry has been ranked either first or second in suicide rates for several years, alarmingly occurring at four times the rate of the general population in the United States. Due to its increasing rate across all populations, it is likely that we all know someone that has lost their life to suicide, and with the knowledge that suicide has become the 10th leading cause of death each year in the United States, our industry is in desperate need of not only learning about the causes of suicide, but also the risk factors, warning signs, prevention methods, and resources available to those of us in the construction industry and beyond.
We had the honor of speaking with one of the top experts in the nation, Sally Spencer-Thomas, who is a clinical psychologist, international mental-health advocate and speaker, researcher, and suicide loss survivor. Sally lost her only sibling and best friend, Carson J. Spencer, on December 7th, 2004 and her life’s mission from that point forward has been dedicated to educating, preventing, innovating, writing, and professionally speaking about mental health, reminding us of the positive impact each one of us can have on our society, and thus on one another.
It goes without saying that the construction industry has some stereotypical markers of a male-dominated industry – tough, rugged, strong, problem-solvers, and often, high achievers. However, along with these attributes, the industry often lacks the characteristics that are proven to lessen the risk of suicide, such as empathy, vulnerability, and the courage to have meaningful conversations with our peers. Unfortunately, this is the culture that our industry has thrived upon for generations, though the time has come to try a new way of thinking and to be led by a new group of leaders. Through her leadership roles and entrepreneurial efforts, Sally Spencer-Thomas is starting the conversation with so many construction professionals and organizations today, including her work with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, International Association of Suicide Prevention, United Suicide Survirors International, and the Carson J Spencer Foundaiton. Regarding the construction industry specifically, one common risk factor for construction professionals is the risk of injury. Spencer-Thomas explains, “The work is dependent on the labor of your body, so there is a high risk for injury, potential disability, and pain, and all of those things contribute to suicide risk. Pain is the definition of misery, and if it’s long term, really difficult pain issues, that can also lead to the prescription of opiates, which can lead to a whole other can of worms in terms of people’s wellbeing.” According to the CDC, there were nearly 70,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 – a 36% increase over the previous year. Construction workers are at greater risk for overdose, with studies in both Massachusetts and Ohio showing that they were seven times more likely to die of opioid-related overdoses than the average worker.
As Spencer-Thomas further explains, earning a good living is common for many construction professionals, but all too often financial disruption can also play a huge role in mental health disruption. She states, “And so it’s that debt where now they are chained, handcuffed, to a job that’s really difficult. And now we have to work even more hours and long years to pay off debt for a lifestyle they can no longer afford and now have no time to enjoy. That feeling of being trapped is very difficult for people.” Once you layer the injury with financial burden and wrap it in the tough, ‘I can handle it’ mentality, it can be very difficult to overcome. Spencer-Thomas continues, “But then when it comes to what actually needs to be done, it’s most definitely a feeling of writing with a non-dominant hand because it’s about not solving problems. It’s about listening and showing up with empathy and compassion, and that might take a while.” The act of listening, showing vulnerability, and expressing empathy is almost the exact opposite of what our day-to-day jobs have trained us to do – no wonder it can feel as if we are swimming upstream!
Luckily, with the research and resources that innovators such as Spencer-Thomas have provided, we can adopt some management changes, learn to recognize risk factors and create an open conversation where we aim to talk less and listen more. The power of peer connection and changed culture, perhaps combined with mental health professionals and/or medication, is likely to have a continued positive impact on our industry. We agree with Spencer-Thomas that it is not necessarily a mental health stigma that we need to overcome, rather it is our own bias and understanding of the role that our workplace culture plays in society that needs to change. She explains, “The entire mental health community globally is just obsessed with stigma. Stigma, stigma, stigma, stigma everywhere. And the more we talk about it, the more we are just reinforcing that connection.” The more we can cultivate our personal and business relationships, the more positive stories we will hear about overcoming mental health problems, and as Sally describes it, the more “hero’s journeys” we will witness.
How rewarding it must be for Spencer-Thomas to be a part of the first mental health document in the construction industry (Executive Summary – Workplace Suicide Prevention), as well as leading the charge with prevention & postvention suicide resources, and interventions. Not every day do we get the chance to honor our personal heroes, yet Spencer-Thomas dedicates her work to honor her brother’s memory each day. She said it best when she describes how rewarding her path has been, explaining, “It’s so wild – I feel like he walks with me and opens doors and kicks me in the butt from time to time – I definitely believe that. But like I said, I’m a girly do-gooder, so every time I’m in front of this large audience of what’s mostly, really rugged, tough guys and women, I’m like, how the heck did I get here? And I can’t imagine myself anywhere else. This is exactly the place I need to be with the biggest impact and so I just love it.” We are grateful to Sally Spencer-Thomas for her time and dedication to this noble, life-saving cause, and we ask each of you to let this quote from the Higher Education Center on Spencer-Thomas’ website be your marching order moving forward: “Be vocal. Be visible. Be visionary. There is no shame in stepping forward, but there is great risk in holding back and hoping for the best.” Again, we thank you Sally Spencer-Thomas for being the change maker that this industry desperately needs!
Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas – https://www.sallyspencerthomas.com/