Mental Health – Connecting the Dots

20 Feb, 2018

As I sat down to write this, I thought, “what can I say about mental health that hasn’t already been said?” Each year, in the interest of educating people about mental health and encouraging dialogue, we see a number of mental health campaigns on television and social media. These initiatives are usually scheduled … they have a specific roll-out date, with common objectives … to raise awareness and encourage help-seeking behavior. One big campaign once a year is better than nothing but, I think the days of the “one and done” approach around mental health are numbered. We need to think about mental health all year round and, to see it as more than the absence of a mental health problem. We also need to take the time to ask where we see ourselves in the message. What are we doing as an organization and, are we, as a society dealing with the root cause(s)? Mental health care is one of the biggest unmet needs of our time. The human and economic toll is enormous yet, often hidden. Over the past several months, I’ve learned how mental illness is connected to a whole pile of other things like suicide, homelessness and addiction; how it affects us, our members, our families and how it will affect the future of every one of Canada’s Building Trades Unions.

Mental health has been hidden behind a curtain of stigma and discrimination for far too long. Society is finally waking up to the fact that we have to talk about it and, more importantly, we have to do something about it! Mental illness strikes without regard for economic class, gender, religion or political affiliation. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in any given year, 1 in 5 Canadians experience a mental health or addiction problem and, by the time Canadians reach 40 years of age, 1 in 2 have – or have had – a mental illness. And, at least 20% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance dependence problem. Good people without access to proper treatment and/or support become locked out of society – they’re tucked away in some forgotten corner of the universe and easily forgotten about.

Some of them are our members, those who have the unfortunate distinction of belonging to the “forgotten population”. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to speak with a woman who does a lot of work with the homeless in Calgary. We talked about the lack of suitable housing, lack of human resources, lack of financial resources and, burn-out amongst those trying to help … all things you would expect to be raised in an exchange about homelessness. A few times during the discussion, she mentioned “the forgotten population”. I took it for granted that it was a catch-all phrase that encompassed all homeless people. When I asked for clarification, she explained that “the forgotten population” represented mostly men, some of whom were our members, between the ages of 45-60, moving toward the latter part of their working life, who had fallen through the cracks, perhaps as a result of not having accumulated enough work hours for a decent pension; maybe they suffered an injury and could no longer work or, more often than not, were struggling with untreated mental health issues and/or addiction.

When one thinks of an addict, they generally associate the term with those who are derelict or exist on the margins of society. In reality, addiction can develop in anyone, at any time, regardless of age, socioeconomic status or cultural background. Studies show that in various Canadian cities between 23% and 67% of homeless people report having a mental illness and sadly, it’s easier to get homeless people with mental illness into jail than into care. Incarceration is usually par for the course for those suffering with mental illness and/or substance addiction. The unfortunate reality is that some folks see jail as a good thing because it forces the addict into recovery. What they forget though is that relapse is part of recovery and, the truth of the matter is, jail doesn’t do anything to address the underlying reason for addiction.

Recently, North America’s Building Trades Unions put a task force in place to try to figure out what to do about the opioid crisis in the U.S. We’ve had one meeting and pretty well everyone there had a compelling story to tell or knew someone who was in the grips of opioid addiction. Everyone who was there was there because they recognized that somebody has to do something. In some cases, whole generations and, sometimes, two are being lost to this horrendous scourge that has become the “disease du jour”. It’s a club that no one wants to belong to yet, ironically, there are no “untouchables”. Canada is also facing a national opioid crisis which will have increasingly significant ramifications for our health care system, private health and welfare plans and Employee Family Assistance Plans, as more and more Canadians seek emergency care for overdoses and addiction. Adults aged 45-64 have one of the highest rates of hospital admissions for opioid toxicity but, the fastest-growing rate is for youth and young adults, aged 15-24. Western and Northern Canada have higher hospitalization rates but, rates are on the rise in Eastern Canada. Mental health challenges and trauma are key root causes contributing to opioid use and a significant number of opioid poisonings. Studies show that 31% of opioid poisonings in Canada last year were as a result of purposely self-inflicted harm, which included suicide attempts.

Suicide is a hidden epidemic in the construction industry. There are lots of contributing factors including, periods of unsteady employment, not knowing where the next pay cheque is coming from, travel that separates workers from their families, isolation, physical strain and chronic pain, to name a few. Also contributing to this is that historically, not a lot of people have paid attention to men in the middle years … they’re kind of considered a privileged population … it’s assumed they’re established and have everything going for them. Probably one of the biggest factors though, is the stigma surrounding mental health and, with men in general. Construction is a male dominated industry, where a “tough guy” culture is damaging to people’s mental well-being and safety because they don’t feel comfortable discussing mental health. Coming to grips with the shame that males may feel when they’re experiencing distress, or depressive and suicidal thoughts goes against everything they’ve been taught about not showing or talking about their emotions.

The bottom line is … mental health cannot be taken for granted. Promoting good mental health in our industry has never been more important. Everyday, 500,000 Canadians are off work due to mental health issues and because it’s hard to identify, organizations have not really made it a priority. Change in culture takes time and, not everything needs to be done at once. Developing a good mental health program is the right place to start. You can do this by adopting some best practices. Create a vision statement and some guiding principles around mental health. Promote your Employee Family Assistance Program and think about incorporating education and training around mental health into your current leadership and shop steward training curriculum. Basic, common-sense, practical training can help educate workers to recognize the signs and causes of stress and can help to legitimize those feelings of stress and anxiety early before things progress. Studies show that validating feelings can help both genders seek professional guidance or, at the very least, reach out to someone about how they are feeling. Employers have a duty of care. Why not ask owners and contractors to incorporate messaging in their tool box talks and, to equip forepersons and superintendents with resources to support our members? After all, a healthy workforce is a more safe and productive workforce. Understanding and promoting positive mental health is a shared responsibility. We all have a role to play and, it’s the right thing to do!