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MCAA works to improve mental health, reduce suicide rate in construction industry

Pat McManamon
June 10th, 2024
6 Min Read

Brandon Anderson, Vice President of Safety ACG in Missouri, speaks from the heart on a video produced and shared by the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA).

Titled MCAA Mental Health Awareness & Suicide Prevention, the video includes several stories. Anderson, who refers to himself as a servant leader on his LinkedIn bio, talks in honest and halting ways about the joy and pride he’s felt in his job in construction and as a safety professional.

But also shares personal struggles he went through that twice led him to attempt suicide.

“I didn’t want to die,” he said. “I just wanted the pain to end.”

By sharing his story, Anderson hopes to help someone else who may be struggling, to let them know it’s OK to not feel OK, that there is help out there.

“Looking back, reflecting, I wouldn’t change any of it,” said Anderson, who has been in construction and worker safety throughout his career. “I wouldn’t change any decision or lived experience, to be sitting right where I’m at right now sharing a message of hope.”

The video is just one part of the MCAA’s effort to bring awareness about mental health to its community of 2,700 member entities.

“There’s the neck-down approach, which is physical safety,” said Raffi Elchemmas, MCAA’s Executive Director of Safety, Health and Risk. “And then there’s from the neck up, right? It’s your mental health, psychological safety.

“It's becoming a really big topic now because we're seeing some important data. COVID really highlighted all of the mental health issues in our industry.”

MCAA’s reach, and mission

The MCAA, which is a ServiceTitan partner organization, has members in all 50 states whose work is in HVAC, refrigeration, plumbing, piping and mechanical service as well as construction. Based in Rockville, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., the MCAA provides members with educational materials and programs to foster business success.

“And we've done it for over a hundred years,” Elchemmas said. “We represent the interests of mechanical contractors in Washington. We represent the interests of mechanical contractors with our labor partners at the United Association, and we have a great relationship with both the legislative bodies that govern and regulate our industry as well as our partners at the United Association who supply the labor to our contractors.”

MCAA’s emphasis on mental health is a product of a need, especially in construction. Elchemmas said construction workers have the second highest suicide rate in the country, and five times more death by suicide than physical job deaths. That truth becomes more somber when Elchemmas explains that there are 45,000 suicides in the U.S. annually, one every 11 minutes. Of those, 5,000 occur in the construction industry alone.

He attributes the mental health struggles in construction to injuries (including those that lead to chronic pain), substance abuse, financial instability and the need for some jobs to be away from family, sometimes for months.

“The thing that makes construction workers so damn unique is their tough-mindedness, their perseverance, their ambition,” Elchemmas said. “Those are the same things that make those workers vulnerable.

“We want those traits in people who are building our buildings, building our country, but they're the last group of people to ask for help when they need it. I think all of that comes together, creates this perfect storm of why the construction industry is so vulnerable, in my opinion.”

Pushing mental health awareness

MCAA’s approach and principles apply to any facet of the trades. In any job and any industry, an employee’s mental health is important. Which means awareness is important. Elchemmas said 60% of male suicide victims have no prior history of mental illness, and 90% of U.S. adults believe suicide is preventable.

MCAA initially produced the video for members, but its power and message drew great interest, so it now is available to the public.

The video is powerful.

“We've gotten feedback (on the video) from industries that I wouldn't have imagined,” Elchemmas said. “From high schools, from higher education, from food industry distribution companies, men and women that have nothing to do with construction. They're like, ‘Thank you for creating this. It's a powerful message. It's helping to break the stigma.’”

MCAA also created and produced a chip with the message: “Here’s your first tool. 988.” Those three digits are the direct connection to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which has been a first step toward regaining mental health for many.

“If you don't feel comfortable talking to your friend, your neighbor, the guy or woman sitting across from you, you could simply hand them this little chip and say, "Hey, here you go." You don't even need to say anything.”

A pathway to help

MCAA first started producing the chips in 2023, when it made 80,000. The last 12 months it sent out 100,000 through the website. The goal is not to make anyone a mental health professional, just to offer a pathway to help that people can carry in their pocket.

“Stories have poured in from every corner, every trade, even outside of construction,” Elchemmas said. “Now, I don't say that to say the work is done or we've solved the problem. It's just a step in the right direction.

But that first step could lead to saving a life.

“The concept of bringing the chips and the awareness has been this moment of fresh air to just say, ‘You don't have to be a subject matter expert. You don't have to say anything. You can hand this to someone,’” Elchemmas said.

Awareness is the predecessor to action, which Elchemmas sees in individual companies that recognize the importance of mental health. Some of them bring in mental health professionals to train and support workers, and to ensure there is a point of contact for anyone struggling. Others have had management take classes that help them to recognize anyone struggling, and take steps to support.

“We spend billions of dollars preventing injury and illness and fatality from physical injury from the neck down,” Elchemmas said. “Now let's take the next step and do it from the neck up.”

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