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Starting the Hard Conversation: The CIASP seeks to save lives, prevent suicide

By Timothy Johnson | May 14, 2024
Starting the Hard Conversation: The CIASP seeks to save lives, prevent suicide
The suicide rate among the working population in the United States rose 36% from 2000–2016, according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that the highest male suicide rate was in the construction and extraction occupational group.

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The suicide rate among the working population in the United States rose 36% from 2000–2016, according to a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that the highest male suicide rate was in the construction and extraction occupational group.

Stuart Binstock, retired president and CEO of the Construction Financial Management Association 

Wes Wheeler, executive director of safety at NECA

Sonya Bohmann, executive director of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention

Amanda Matoushek, professor of psychology at Bluefield State University

Stuart Binstock, former president and CEO of the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA), Princeton, N.J., now retired, wasn’t surprised by the CDC’s findings. CFMA Building Profits magazine ran “Mental Illness & Suicide: Break the Silence & Create a Caring Culture,” by Cal Beyer and Sally Spencer-Thomas in 2015.

What did surprise Binstock, however, was the CFMA community’s response to the article.

“There was a tsunami of activity after that article was published,” Binstock said. “People came out of the woodwork, and they were very open and wanted to talk about their experiences.”

The CDC reported more than 48,000 people died by suicide in the United States in 2021, and that tragedy creates a strong thread connecting those who have lost someone.

“People wanted honest discussion about a topic people weren’t talking about,” Binstock said.

In response to the community’s flurry of activity, Binstock sought to engage the industry, establishing the nonprofit Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), Frankfort, Ill., and launching PreventConstructionSuicide.com in 2018.

“There isn’t one person in this country who hasn’t been touched by or who doesn’t know someone who’s been affected by suicide,” said Wes Wheeler, executive director of safety at NECA. Wheeler also serves on CIASP’s board of trustees with Binstock and other industry leaders.

In 2023, CIASP fortified its efforts when it hired Sonya Bohmann as executive director.

“The CIASP has been run up until now by a board of phenomenally dedicated people—all volunteers who have full-time jobs, construction companies to run and associations to manage—who have done great work getting the CIASP to a state where it can share resources, awareness and appropriate, valid and relevant statistics,” Bohmann said.

For her part, Bohmann is singularly focused on developing CIASP to fulfill its mission.

One mission, a multifaceted issue

A coalition of industry organizations, the CIASP is dedicated to saving lives through suicide prevention. Complicating the task is the fact that many of the contributing factors putting construction workers at such great risk are industry realities.

“All of the things we love about this industry—the strong work ethic and mentality of resilience—are also the things that keep us from asking for help,” Bohmann said.

“In the construction industry, we have that can-do attitude, which is a virtue. The problem is, when we can’t do it, we’re ashamed,” Wheeler said.

Construction is hard on the body, therefore many workers suffer chronic pain, which can lead to anxiety, depression and substance abuse, Bohmann said.

“The most common psychological conditions that can cause or exacerbate the risk of suicide are depression and/or substance use disorder,” said Amanda Matoushek, who has a doctorate in behavioral neuroscience and is a professor of psychology at Bluefield State University in Bluefield, W.Va. 

“However, beyond those conditions, anyone can suffer from psychological conditions, such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and conduct disorders, which can also contribute to suicidal ideations,” she said.

Construction workers generally take great pride in what they do and associate their identity with their work, Wheeler said. However, the physical demand causes some workers to age out of their ability more quickly than they would in other occupations.

Workers who go from the field to the office may not find fulfillment inside, “because it didn’t fit who they were,” Wheeler said.

Worrying about retirement savings, emergency planning or balancing profits with company or resource investment to stay ahead of the curve can all pile up. 

Examining the industry at a higher level, the occupational ebbs and flows of contracting can invoke additional stressors.

“One of the happiest days of your life is the day you win a bid and get a job,” Wheeler said. “One of the most stressful days of your life is the day you win a bid and get a job—because of anxieties regarding what you left out.”

Worrying about retirement savings, emergency planning or balancing profits with company or resource investment to stay ahead of the curve can all pile up. To boot, the construction industry employs many veterans, who can face challenges from combat-­related traumas, Bohmann said.

The most recent annual report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found, in 2021, an average of 17.5 veterans died by suicide every day.

“We’re a great place for veterans to make that transition from the military to a career, but that can add to the mix of contributing factors,” Bohmann said.

“Stressors may lead an individual to consider death by suicide because of an accumulating sense that they are overwhelmed, have no help or support or otherwise feel there is no hope of changing their situation,” Matoushek said. 

“Often, there are solutions to the stressors being faced, but someone suffering from mental health issues that lead to suicidal ideation often cannot see those solutions, feel things will not improve or that they are not worthy of help,” she said.

“A failure or struggle at work can lead to personal stress, which can lead to stress in their family, and these compounding factors can lead to depression,” Wheeler said.

Considering how complicated and unique to each individual challenges can be, how can a contractor look out for their own?

A coalition for guidance

CIASP has evolved into a trusted authority and repository for guidance material for addressing mental health and suicide prevention in construction workforces.

“Everyone can do something to prevent suicide in the construction industry,” Bohmann said. “We can all start a conversation. We can all check in on a friend. We can all follow our instincts and, if we feel something isn’t right, ask.”

Bohmann said the CIASP is focused on creating a pathway where anyone in the industry will have access to options to build out a mental health and safety program.

“If there is a reason to think an individual may be contemplating suicide, it is critical to address that directly by asking, ‘Are you considering suicide?’ or ‘Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?’

--Amanda Matoushek, Bluefield State University

“This pathway will have different steps on it where you can engage where you need to,” Bohmann said. “So, if you already have an employee assistance program [EAP], for instance, you may not need information about how to set one up, but what you might need is some toolbox talks or information on how to set up a peer-to-peer support program.”

The CIASP currently offers free construction-industry-­focused resources, with plans to expand them later in 2024.

What can we do right now?

Though the CDC finds construction no longer leads occupational groups in suicide, the rate of suicide in the industry remains high. 

According to Wheeler, NECA started analyzing suicide in the construction industry as a safety matter in 2022. Wheeler travels around the country, bringing the safety-­related issues of suicide prevention and mental health awareness straight to the workforce.

“If they have something going on, I need them focused on what they’re doing, so they don’t harm themselves or someone else,” Wheeler said. “By the same token, if I’m the contractor, they can’t focus on their work if I don’t show them I care about them and what they’re going through.”

Wheeler said his experience presenting to these groups has revealed a simple, human approach may be best.

“When we share our stories and show it’s OK to be strong and open up and talk about this stuff, it begins conversations,” Wheeler said. “I think we’ll see the most impact by simply talking about it, removing the stigma and letting people know it’s OK to not be OK.”

Bohmann said the best place to start is by re-establishing those human connections through empathy.

“Making sure our employees know everyone experiences both ends of the mental health continuum can go a long way,” Bohmann said. “Make the conversation more acceptable. We don’t have to whisper about not feeling great all the time.”

Matoushek said negative changes to a person’s demeanor, especially sudden sadness, hopelessness or withdrawing from social situations can be a sign of mental health decline.

“Frequently missing or being late to work, mood swings, unexplained anger and evidence of sudden financial strain can be warning signs,” Matoushek said. “The best approach is to address the situation directly while making it clear that you have genuine concern for their health and safety without judgment. Offering to help them find mental health support can be beneficial, especially if they are feeling hopeless or overwhelmed. 

“If there is a reason to think an individual may be contemplating suicide, it is critical to address that directly by asking, ‘Are you considering suicide?’ or ‘Do you have a plan to hurt yourself?’

“If the answer is yes, take them to the nearest emergency room or emergency mental health facility for an evaluation. If they are not willing to seek immediate help, every effort should be made to ensure they are not left alone. As a last option, make a plan to meet the next day, and make the individual promise to be there,” she said.

According to Bohmann, asking someone if they’re planning to die by suicide will not activate those at risk.

“It will let that person know someone cares, understands their thoughts and wants to help,” she said.

From there, Bohmann recommends connecting the individual with an EAP, their health insurance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (988) or a local crisis unit.

Though the CIASP is working toward an ideal where no one else dies by suicide, Bohmann characterized success for the CIASP as a reduction in the construction industry’s suicide rate below the national average.

“Success also looks like evidence that we’re making a difference in that we are providing the resources people need, they’re using those resources and we are really reducing the number of deaths by suicide in the construction industry,” she said.

Beyond information, tools and resources, Wheeler expressed the importance of personal connections that make construction work easier to bear.

“Be a coach, mentor or friend for someone,” Wheeler said. “Don’t be afraid to be empathetic, to start a conversation or to ask someone how you can help.”

Starting a conversation can save lives.

“I always feel the need to point out that suicide is not a disorder or illness itself; rather, it is a symptom of a broader mental health disorder,” Matoushek said. “Key to everything is eliminating the stigma, making people comfortable and opening dialogues. It will unveil the resources available—such as counseling, therapy and substance abuse treatment—so people can reach out and connect when they need help.”

“Construction needs to create a caring culture, something not traditionally known in the industry, but necessary to help employees with their mental health,” Binstock said.  

stock.adobe.com / Andrey Popov

About The Author

JOHNSON is a writer and editor living outside Washington, D.C. He has worked in magazine, web and journal publishing since 2006, and was formerly the digital editor for ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR magazine. Learn more at www.tjfreelance.com.

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