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LIUNA’s Midwest Region Takes on Suicide Prevention

More than ever, meeting the mental health needs of workers is taking center stage in the construction industry. Helping to protect LIUNA members’ well-being on and off the job is an important part of the LHSFNA’s mission and that of its affiliates in the field.

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer Michael F. Sabitoni

“We have to work hard to make sure every LIUNA member feels comfortable asking for help when they need it,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Trustee Michael F. Sabitoni. “Supporting the mental health of our LIUNA brothers and sisters is just as important as protecting their physical safety and health on the job.”

In 2022, the Midwest Region Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund (MRLHSF) recognized the need to reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues so members would feel comfortable seeking help. As part of that goal, MRLHSF staff began talking to new LIUNA apprentices at the LIUNA training center in Stanford, Illinois.

“It lets them know we care, that we’re not just worried about their physical safety,” says Kathy Utter, Director of the MRLHSF. “Rather than put mental health on the backburner, we’re putting it on equal footing.”

Jim Rogal, Researcher and Educator at the MRLHSF, now regularly gives short presentations about suicide prevention, including the risk factors in construction and what to watch out for. Rogal also covers local and national resources available to members if they need help and distributes the LHSFNA-branded version of 988’s suicide prevention wallet card.

To date, Rogal has done more than 20 suicide prevention presentations to new LIUNA apprentices, and estimates they’ve reached upwards of 300 members. The MRLHSF team has also presented on this topic to the Region’s District Councils, Local Unions and affiliated Funds at their annual conference.

Getting Members Engaged About Mental Health

Like any good trainer, Rogal does what he can to tailor his approach to the group of members he’s addressing. For the most part, he’s noticed that younger members already have some familiarity with mental health topics and are open to discussing it.

One approach Rogal has had success with is using statistics or stories that members can relate to. “To help members see why this is important, I’ll share that there were 17 suicides in McLean County in all of 2022, and by summer of 2023, we’d already exceeded that number,” says Rogal. “I give them a number they can get their heads around.”

Expanding Efforts in the Midwest Region

The program to reach apprentices via the training center in Stanford started as a pilot, with the goal of gathering information and fine-tuning the approach before taking efforts across the Region.

“Our approach has been to address suicide prevention first, then expand from there,” says Utter. “We’ve also been educating members and contractors about substance use disorder, opioid overdoses and how to administer Narcan.”

Image courtesy of the Midwest Region Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund.

One of the next steps for MRLHSF staff is to spread these suicide prevention conversations across the Region. That’s being accomplished by providing the presentation and best practices for approaching this sometimes difficult topic with the network of instructors already on site at LIUNA training centers.

“My message to training center instructors is that I’m not a mental health professional and I’m not training them to be one either,” says Rogal. “Still, there’s so much we can do to help members and their families.”

The MRLHSF is taking the view that even though they have a small staff, they can have a big impact for LIUNA members and their families in the Region. Part of that impact is helping other LIUNA leaders feel comfortable having conversations about mental health and suicide prevention, even if it’s difficult or uncomfortable.

Looking ahead, the MRLHSF has several initiatives planned for Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month in September, including holding toolbox talks on jobsites and passing out hardhat stickers with suicide prevention information to members. After that, Fund staff will work on identifying more online resources for members and educating more members on depression, anxiety and managing stress.

[Nick Fox]

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