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Struggle, Strength and Hope: LIUNA’s Eastern Region Breaks Down Mental Health Barriers

LIUNA Vice President and Eastern Regional Manager Mike Hellstrom

Many LIUNA leaders know that even if you haven’t struggled with issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse or thoughts of suicide, chances are you know someone who has been impacted by these challenges. According to LIUNA Vice President, Eastern Regional Manager and New Jersey Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund (NJLHSF) Chairman Mike Hellstrom, addressing mental health issues has been a priority for the past several years.

“There is a whole mix of activities to promote safety and health, especially mental health,” said Hellstrom. “Among other things, we have used toolbox talks, membership communications, screenings and health fairs to connect with those who may need help.”

For NJLHSF Assistant Director Mike Caterina, mental health and addiction issues hit home. As someone who’s been personally affected by these issues, he felt called to make a difference with LIUNA members, their families and signatory contractors in his Region.

“I’ve faced issues in my career with addiction and have loved ones who’ve lived with mental illness their whole lives,” Caterina said. “These are issues I take very seriously. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished in my life and I will continue to help anybody I can who crosses my path.”

Mental health conversations started long before 2020, but came to a head for many during the COVID-19 pandemic. Confronting these mental health struggles paved the way to start breaking down barriers around mental health.

The Eastern Region Strategy

Caterina joined forces with Kimberly Kemple, Collection Manager for the New Jersey Building Laborers’ Statewide Benefit Funds, and Albie Aveta, a Recovery Specialist and Local 3 member, to raise awareness about the increasingly prevalent mental health challenges in the construction industry. They decided one effective way to tackle this goal is to target members at the beginning of their LIUNA career and incorporate mental health literacy into training.

As part of their training, all new apprentices and new hires are required to attend an 80-hour General Construction (GEN CON) class. Caterina, Kemple and Aveta were able to work with LIUNA training centers to secure a one-hour slot in the GEN CON class curriculum. In their presentations, the team discusses the current rise in addiction, suicide and mental health issues in the industry, provides an overview of the medical benefits for eligible and non-eligible members and discusses the general importance of safety and health.

Albie Aveta, Recovery Specialist and Local 3 Member

Caterina, Kemple and Aveta also present at union meetings across the Region. At these meetings, Aveta gives short talks about his story of recovery and Kemple provides a comprehensive list of mental health resources available locally. Kemple reports these discussions have been impactful and empowered members and staff to reach out for support.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have experience with substance use or mental health in their circles,” Kemple said. “The fact that we’re showing up to these meetings and talking to these people from the heart, I think it’s reaching those who really need it. If they hear a story similar to their own from a familiar voice, it makes it that much easier to pick up the phone and ask us for help afterwards.”

In addition to presentations, the NJLHSF has worked to “saturate the halls” with resources and materials on mental health. These include the LHSFNA’s mental and emotional health publications, which the team regularly orders and distributes to Local Union halls, union meetings and health fairs.

Building a Foundation of Empathy and Support

Caterina noted that many people avoid talking about how they feel and opening up about their struggles, and having these conversations requires empathy, nuance and knowledge. In recognition of this, the NJLHSF piloted a train-the-trainer program, which is a sensitivity training program aimed at helping leaders in the field facilitate difficult conversations around mental health. Some of the LHSFNA’s publications are used as training material for this program.

“I don’t think there’s a member out there that doesn’t care for their LIUNA brother or sister,” Caterina said. “But I think that sometimes we see an old-school ‘suck it up’ attitude, which can be discouraging for those struggling. Training the trainers is a good place to start because you build a foundation of compassion.”

When asked why he thinks the program has been so successful, Caterina points to his team’s “three-pronged approach.” By employing professionals with different but complementary areas of expertise, the team is able to address every side of the coin. Caterina represents the union side, Kemple brings knowledge on benefits and resources and Aveta brings a real-life story of success as a recovering alcoholic working in the field.

“Together, we tell the story of struggle, strength and hope,” Caterina explained. “Pooling from our collective knowledge, we’re usually able to answer any question that arises.”

What’s Next?

The NJLHSF has been hard at work developing this behavioral health program, but knows their work is far from done. Going forward, they’re hoping to continue expanding the train-the-trainer program and work with other Regions to collaborate on, share and promote efforts – such as the New York State Laborers’ Hope Lives campaign and the St. Louis Laborers’ LEAN program – across the country.

“Ultimately, we want to educate members, reduce stigma around mental health and provide a starting point for having these tough conversations,” said Aveta. “As someone who’s been in the trenches – both physically and emotionally – I know what it’s like to struggle and come out on the other side. I’m grateful to be part of a team that brings members hope and am excited to see where it takes us.”

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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