Wisconsin Construction Wellness Community fights suicide, risk 4x higher

You may think of construction work as inherently dangerous, but suicide is killing about five times as many construction workers as deaths on the job. The new Wisconsin Construction Wellness Community is aimed at fighting back.

In an industry all about building things up, some are focused on breaking something down: the stigma associated with seeking mental health help.

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"We just started digging into it, seeing all the statistics that were staggering," said Bruce Morton, board president and senior loss control consultant at Marsh & McLennan Agency. "The mission is not only to help the construction company and give them awareness and give them tools, it’s to make them feel comfortable to come forward, to break that stigma."

Seeking help for mental illness is especially important in the construction industry. CDC data show workers are four times more likely to die by suicide than people in the general population.

"I was still floored," said Morton. "I thought it was wrong. Like, how did we miss this for all of these years?"

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"All of us within the board have been somewhat (affected by mental illness)," said Morton. "For me, my son had severe mental health issues."

With 15 years of past experience in the construction industry, Morton is board president of the Wisconsin Construction Wellness Community, working with construction companies to equip workers with the tools they need.

"The union has so many different things at these carpenter and laborers' fingertips," said Elizabeth Polheber, board treasurer. "They should use them."

At VJS Construction, Polheber, senior safety manager, said she’s already helped bring big changes, including posting resources at job sites, adding mental health checks at meetings and building a mental health crisis plan.

"When we started to roll all this out toward the end of COVID, everyone was ready for it as well," she said, adding that open, honest conversations on job sites are becoming more common.

"The next thing you know, you have eight guys sitting in there talking about their feelings and mental health," said Polheber. "It’s pretty cool once you can just be vulnerable and open up."

The goal is to break down the stigma and build up support.

"I think you’re going to see more and more of it," said Morton. 

Wisconsin Construction Wellness Community is hosting its first public workshop Oct. 19