Imagine that an inherently faulty but widely used piece of construction equipment had contributed to a significant number of deaths.
Everyone would be talking about it.
Imagine if managers and company directors all buried their heads in the sand. The industry would – quite rightly – be up in arms.
Yet in construction, secrecy and stigma surrounding mental health problems such as stress, depression or anxiety contribute to the fact that there are significantly more deaths from suicide than from onsite accidents.
Suicide is about ordinary people in despair who lose the ability to think of solutions, believing that they have no option but to end their lives. But mainly it’s about people dying from something that is preventable right until the final moment.
A disproportionate number of men die by suicide. The reasons are complex, and many people experience suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives, without going on to attempt suicide. So what makes men working in construction more likely to act on their suicidal thoughts, and how can we prevent suicidal thoughts from becoming suicide deaths?
Strong, but silent
In school, boys are more likely to play physical games in the playground and engage in ‘banter’ rather than have meaningful conversations with friends.
The expectations on boys to be strong is reinforced throughout teenage years and into adulthood. Men are less comfortable showing and discussing emotions, and so bottle up problems. The stigma surrounding mental health issues and suicide means – often with tragic consequences – that the more distressed someone becomes, the less they feel able to acknowledge it and seek support.
“Suicidal thoughts should be seen as a sign to change something in your life, not to end your life”
A whole generation of working men have grown up in an environment where men talking about feelings was unusual or even discouraged. Yet these same men are now expected to be emotionally literate partners and parents.
Meanwhile traditional job security has gone and many struggle financially. Men who are stressed or have mental health problems can become disconnected from social networks and sources of support. They are more likely than women to turn to alcohol or drugs, especially relevant in an industry that often requires long periods of working away from home.
Suicidal thoughts usually start because people feel overwhelmed by their situation; usually there is no single cause.
This can happen to anyone, and does not necessarily mean they want to end their life. It’s just that they cannot cope with their emotional pain any more.
Research shows that increasing hope, identifying reasons for living, seeking support and treatment of mental health issues saves lives. Suicidal thoughts should be seen as a sign to change something in your life, not to end it.
If someone you know is having a tough time, ask them about it, encourage them to get support, and don’t underestimate the courage it takes to admit how they’re feeling.
And finally, remember that if you are struggling, seeking help is not a sign of weakness. In fact it may be the bravest thing you ever do – and might even save your life.
Staying safe practical, advice, links to support organisations and making a safety plan.
U Can Cope film (22 minutes long): Inspirational stories of three people who were struggling but found a way through.
Dr Alys Cole-King is a consultant psychiatrist and director of Connecting with People and Open Minds Health