Skip to main content
Blog Name

Destigmatizing Mental Health Discussions

Creating a company culture that aids suicide prevention

Construction worker comforting colleague


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, text 988 to speak with a trained mental health provider. 

Suicide is a complex and serious issue that disproportionately affects construction workers. To address this critical health crisis, 2023 GlassBuild America’s Main Stage presented an educational panel on mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Hosted by Richard Bright, CEO of the American Subcontractors Association, the session welcomed Kristen Petillo, area director for the Georgia Chapter American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Cal Beyer, national leader and consultant for workplace mental health and suicide prevention; and Bob Swanson, retired president of contracting firm Swanson & Youngdale Inc.

The impact of suicide in construction

While data has historically been hard to gather, the existing statistics for deaths by suicide in construction are stark, says Beyer. Construction has the second-highest suicide rate among U.S. industries, second to mining. Beyer says since he started his career in 1995, he’s seen overall construction fatalities decrease from 1,500 per year to 1,100. But five times more people die of suicide in construction than other construction occupational fatalities combined.

Recognizing and understanding risk factors

High rates of suicide in the industry can be traced to several complex risk factors, say panelists, some due to the nature of the work itself. Swanson, who is a suicide loss survivor and former contractor, talked about the “demanding” nature of construction and how work conditions can worsen mental health, including the amount of travel involved and long working hours. Swanson spoke about how the need to travel for work leads to “a lot of family separation, and loneliness does not help if you’re already having issues.”

Construction remains male-dominated, and panelists discussed the “tough guy” culture as another obstacle to getting help for mental health issues. “Many people don’t want to lean in to access a therapist and have those conversations. If you’re male and are not open to it, you may not feel you can talk about it with your family,” says Petillo.

Substance use disorders and alcohol can also be major contributing factors to worsening mental health and suicide risk. Beyer explained that more than one third of construction workers have a musculoskeletal injury, which is a “gateway to opioid use.” “The intersection between suicide and overdose is very high. Data shows that there’s a seven times greater chance of suicide if you have a substance use disorder, especially if it’s opioids,” says Beyer.

Petillo said that some of the warning signs that a person is experiencing a mental health crisis are social withdrawal, giving away possessions, and verbalizing hopelessness. Beyer said the affected person may say, “You’ll be better off without me,” or express feelings of being a burden to others.

Changing construction culture to prevent suicide

Panelists encouraged construction business owners to change their company culture to aid suicide prevention. They stressed the importance of starting conversations with affected employees or colleagues when they see warning signs.

Petillo recommended reaching out and asking open-ended questions, such as “Are you okay?” and not “You’re good, right?” to give the person the freedom to respond. “They will be relieved that they are seen and can converse with you about their headspace,” she says. “It’s proven that having that conversation can save a life, so open that dialogue and ask that question.” Petillo’s organization offers a “Talk Saves Lives” program that can train employees on how to have that conversation.

Destigmatizing suicides of coworkers is also critical to changing company culture, said panelists. “Don’t stigmatize the death further by treating it differently when you reveal the news to the rest of your staff,” says Swanson. “It’s the same [as other deaths]; it’s no different than if the person died of a heart attack.”

Further Resources

Guides and education for employers

Crisis hotlines

  • Call or text 988: This will connect you to a trained mental health provider, or a team of a mental health providers and police officer to come in and get the affected person connected to care. 
  • Crisis text line: Text "connect" to 41741


Norah Dick

Norah Dick

Norah Dick is the associate editor for Glass Magazine. She can be reached at