A Construction Company Embraces Frank Talk About Mental Health To Reduce Suicide

Dec 12, 2019
Originally published on December 17, 2019 11:55 am

It has been five years, but the memory still haunts construction superintendent Michelle Brown.

A co-worker ended his workday by giving away his personal cache of hand tools to his colleagues. It was a generous but odd gesture; no one intending to return to work would do such a thing.

The man went home and killed himself. He was found shortly afterward by co-workers who belatedly realized the significance of his gifts.

"It's a huge sign, but we didn't know that then," Brown says. "We know it now."

The suicide of that construction worker for RK in 2014 became a pivotal event for the company, shaking its 1,500 employees, including co-owner Jon Kinning.

The death brought home some painful facts. Construction and mining (including oil drilling) have the highest suicide rates of all occupations, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the suicide rate for working-age adults has been rising in the U.S., increasing by 34% to 17.3 suicides per 100,000 in 2015 from 12.9 in 2012.

Kinning spent the months after the incident meeting with industry leaders and suicide experts.

Over the course of 31 years working in construction, Michelle Brown has endured three co-workers' suicides. Her hard hat bears the name "Momma," recognition of her caring approach on the job.
Yuki Noguchi / NPR

The result: RK, which was founded 56 years ago by Kinning's father, eventually put together what is now regarded as a model for suicide prevention in the construction industry. It involves 24-hour access to counseling services, lenient leave policies and crisis training for managers, among other things.

Most critically, says Kinning, the company embraced lots and lots of open talk about mental health.

"It's a crisis in our country. It's a crisis in our business," Kinning says. And it required rethinking the entire business.

"If somebody didn't show up in the past, we'd be like, 'You've got a job to do — get in here,' '' he says. "We've just changed our tone and our culture. I talk about mental health nearly every time I have a group of employees."

That outreach has prompted workers to take advantage of therapy and other benefits. "We've averted probably 15 suicides since 2014," says Kinning. "That's a pretty good success rate."

Other companies — in construction and in other industries that also face high suicide rates — are now copying RK's approach.

But the struggle is ongoing. Risk factors for suicide in the industry are still numerous, and even RK is not immune to them.

Most construction workers are young and middle-aged men — the same population that is likely to die by suicide. Unhealthy substance use runs high, especially where opioids are prescribed for workplace injuries. Lots of military vets work in construction, and many struggle with past trauma.

That has been a factor for Brown, the RK superintendent, who spent four years in the Air Force. She currently works on a new airport project in Salt Lake City.

Her hard hat bears the name "Momma," a testament to the caring relationships that Brown, affable and cherub-cheeked, cultivates at work.

Three years ago, she noticed an emotional decline in one of her workers, a fellow vet she was close to. He would alternate between being unresponsive and being extremely agitated.

An RK hard hat sticker provides numbers for the company's employee assistance program, a suicide hotline and a crisis text line.
Yuki Noguchi / NPR

One morning, he didn't show up for work and he hadn't called in sick. That put Brown on high alert. Given her past experiences, she immediately suspected that he was suicidal.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she reached him by phone. "Don't hang up," Brown implored, as she drove to his house.

When she got there, she found him drunk, with a firearm in hand.

"It took me back to a time in my life where, if somebody hadn't reached out to me, then there's a possibility I wouldn't be here," she says through tears. "I had no desire to be on this earth anymore. I didn't think it was worth it. Why bother? And somebody took the time to notice my behavior and reach out to me."

Brown soothed him with the words that had helped her: "You're loved. You're needed." She called a therapist, then eased him into medical leave, as RK had trained her to do.

"I wasn't going to lose him if I could help," Brown says.

In that instance, the man survived, and they remain close, even though he has since left RK.

But over the course of 31 years working in construction, Brown says, she has endured three co-workers' suicides. Each case rocked everyone around them. But in those days, she says, the topic was never up for discussion.

RK workers depart a bus on their way to the job site at a new airport under construction in Salt Lake City.
Yuki Noguchi / NPR

Fast-forward to today; it's the polar opposite. RK highlights mental health two to three times a week during what it calls toolbox talks, when workers gather for staff announcements and to stretch.

As much as RK spotlights mental health, it remains a difficult subject.

Kinning and other managers at RK say raising it feels awkward and uncomfortable. Some workers object to the constant focus, saying it raises unwelcome memories for them. But Kinning perseveres, telling them, "I think it's more important for the greater good to talk about mental health issues."

One recent morning at the Salt Lake City work site, about 60 RK workers dressed in neon safety vests gather around supervisor Nate Lewis.

"How many of you guys here have heard this talk before about mental health and awareness on the site?" Lewis asks the crowd. Nearly everyone raises a hand.

With his hands and legs visibly quivering, Lewis recounts his own depressive and suicidal episodes two years ago. Back then, overwork turned to panic and anxiety attacks. After years of objecting, Lewis finally sought therapy and turned a corner.

Lewis then opens the floor for anyone else to come forward. One man, citing his own experience, offers support to anyone struggling with addiction.

Then, from behind Lewis, a normally soft-spoken man approaches the circle. Cal, as he is known, introduces himself. His expression looks to be one of sadness mixed with terror. He apologizes for being nervous, then forges on.

"I have a suicidal past myself," Cal says. "I dealt with maybe six years of attempting to take my life. The last time that happened was last year in July."

From his bed at the hospital, he says, he wondered what kept him coming back to a death wish. "I ended up figuring out while talking to the therapist that I'm not being open about my feelings and my struggles," he says, including about being openly gay and, at times, unwelcome in the construction industry. He also didn't want to be judged for feeling depressed.

Being candid and sharing his experiences, he says, lightened his burdens.

"The last year of my life has been one of the happiest years I've ever experienced as an adult," he tells them. As he regains his composure, Cal is met with the applause and bear hugs of his fellow construction workers.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Suicides in this country are increasing, and the construction industry has one of the highest rates. One employer is addressing the problem by trying to be open about it and offer support to their workers. NPR's Yuki Noguchi has their story. And just a quick warning - there is some difficult subject matter here.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: It's been five years, but the memory haunts Michelle Brown, who works as a construction superintendent. A colleague had ended his workday by giving away his personal hand tools to his co-workers. It was a generous but odd gesture. No one intending to come back to work would do such a thing.

MICHELLE BROWN: It's a huge sign. It's a huge sign. But we didn't know that then; we know it now.

NOGUCHI: The young man went home and killed himself. He was found shortly afterward by co-workers, who belatedly understood the significance of his gifts. That event shook RK Mechanical's 1,500 employees, including its co-owner, Jon Kinning.

JON KINNING: That had an impact on me of just like, oh, my God. You know, we were just completely unaware of how to even identify the signs of somebody that was struggling.

NOGUCHI: In the weeks and months afterward, Kinning brought together industry leaders and talked to suicide experts. RK, which was founded 56 years ago by Kinning's father, eventually put together what is now regarded as a model for suicide prevention in the construction industry. It involves 24-hour access to counseling services, lenient leave policies and crisis training for managers. Most importantly, says Kinning, the company embraced lots and lots of open talk about mental health.

KINNING: If somebody didn't show up in the past, we'd be like, you know, you got a job to do; you know, get in here. We've just changed our tone and our culture. I talk about mental health nearly every time I have a group of employees.

NOGUCHI: The impact?

KINNING: We've averted probably over 15 suicides since 2014. That's a pretty good success rate.

NOGUCHI: Other companies are now copying RK's approach, but the struggle is ongoing. Risk factors for suicide in this industry are still numerous, and even RK is not immune to them. Most construction workers are young and middle-aged men, the same population likeliest to die by suicide. Substance abuse runs high, especially where opioids are prescribed for workplace injuries. Lots of military vets work in construction, and many struggle with past trauma.

Superintendent Brown spent four years in the Air Force. I met her on RK's work site at Salt Lake City's new airport. She's affable and cherubic. Her hard hat bears the name Momma, a testament to her relationships with co-workers. Three years ago, she noticed an emotional decline in one of her workers, a fellow vet.

BROWN: Just nonverbal and then periods of extreme agitation. And the next day was a no-call, no-show. So at 8 o'clock, when he wasn't at work, I went into full-on alarm.

NOGUCHI: In the past, if somebody didn't show up, would you have thought about suicide?

BROWN: Probably not.

NOGUCHI: Brown reached him by phone - please, don't hang up, Brown implored, as she drove to his house. She found him drunk, with a gun in hand.

How did you feel when you understood what was happening?

BROWN: It took me back to a time in my life where, if somebody hadn't had have reached out to me, then there's a possibility I wouldn't be here because I had been where that individual was at, where I had no desire to be on this earth anymore. I didn't think it was worth it. Why bother? And somebody took the time to notice my behavior and reach out to me, and I'll be forever grateful.

NOGUCHI: Brown soothes her co-worker with the words that had helped her - you're loved; you're needed. She called a therapist, then eased him into medical leave.

BROWN: I wasn't going to lose him, if I could help.

NOGUCHI: That must've been so hard.

BROWN: It was horrible - horrible.

NOGUCHI: You're sort of getting teary-eyed.

BROWN: Yeah. Yeah (laughter).

NOGUCHI: I - you want to talk about what you're feeling?

BROWN: I guess joy. I'm happy that I'm here, happy that he's still here.

NOGUCHI: Remarkably, over her 31 years in construction, Brown says she's endured three co-worker suicides. Each case rocked everyone around them. But at the time, she says, the topic was never up for discussion.

BROWN: Was not talked about.

NOGUCHI: It wasn't talked about?

BROWN: It wasn't talked about. It was 20 years ago. It wasn't talked about.

NOGUCHI: Fast-forward to today; it's the polar opposite. Here, mental health is highlighted two to three times a week during what RK calls toolbox talks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, now reach this guy up.

NOGUCHI: Before every shift, workers gather for stretching and announcements.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bring it in, guys.

NOGUCHI: One recent morning, about 60 men in neon safety vests encircle superintendent Nate Lewis.

NATE LEWIS: How many of you guys here have heard this talk before about mental health and awareness on the site?

NOGUCHI: Moments earlier, Lewis told me about his own depressive and suicidal episodes two years ago. He pushed himself to work 80 hours a week to provide for a growing family. Those pressures turned to panic and anxiety attacks. As a supervisor, he says he feels sharing his story with the crew is especially important. But it isn't easy. His hands and legs visibly quiver.

LEWIS: Sorry. I'm a little nervous. I don't get nervous too much. But...

NOGUCHI: Lewis tells them he sought therapy and turned a corner. He then opens the floor. From behind him, a normally soft-spoken man walks toward the circle.

CALFORD: So a lot of you guys probably don't know who I am. My name's Calford.

NOGUCHI: Cal, as he's known, looks terrified. He apologizes for being nervous, then forges on.

CALFORD: I have a suicidal past myself. I dealt maybe six years of, you know, attempting to take my life. The last time that happened was last year in July.

NOGUCHI: From his bed at the hospital, he says he wondered what kept him coming back to a death wish.

CALFORD: Why did this keep happening, you know? Like, what's my problem? And I ended up figuring out, while talking to the therapist, that my problem was I'm not being open about myself and, you know, about my feelings and my struggles.

NOGUCHI: Struggles like being openly gay and, at times, unwelcome in the construction industry and not wanting to be judged for feeling depressed. But opening up, he says, let some light shine through.

CALFORD: The last year of my life has been one of the happiest years I've ever experienced as an adult.

NOGUCHI: That's why he's speaking today, he says, so that anyone suffering might also rediscover hope by talking.

CALFORD: That's all I got to say.

(APPLAUSE)

NOGUCHI: As he regains composure, the young man is met with the bear hugs of his fellow construction workers.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Salt Lake City, Utah.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS IS A PROCESS OF A STILL LIFE'S "ALL MY BLESSINGS ARE A CURSE")

KING: If you are in a crisis or you know someone who is, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They're at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIS IS A PROCESS OF A STILL LIFE'S "ALL MY BLESSINGS ARE A CURSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.