RK Construction, a 55-year-old construction company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, has become a model of what it means to confront mental health problems head on, according to a recent report on NPR.
It wasn’t always this way. Superintendent Michelle Brown recalls that in her 31 years in the industry she’s been close with three suicide victims. It was the last, in 2014, that shook up the company and made things change.
A co-worker, at the end of the workday, walked off the job site and gave away his well-used hand tools to other workers. What they didn’t realize was that this was a sign the man had decided to end his life.
"It's a huge sign, but we didn't know that then," Brown says. "We know it now."
Co-owner Jon Kinning decided that he was going to do something about the problem, and he spent months studying and consulting with mental health professionals. What he found out wasn’t good.
Of all industries studied by the Center for Diesese Control and Prevention, Construction and Mining have the highest incidents of suicide. Worse, the number is rising rapidly. It’s 17.3 suicides per 100,000, up 34% from 12.9 in 2012.
There are many factors that play into the numbers, first being that the majority of construction workers are young-to-middle-aged men, the highest risk group for suicide. Substance abuse is also high, as is stress level and exhaustion. All of these causes make construction a hotbed of risk.
RK Construction decided to implement a strong frontal attack on the problem, including 24-hour access to counseling services, lenient work leave policies, crisis training for manager, and a near-constant presence of mental health issues being talked about in safety meetings. The 1500-employee company is doing better.
"We've averted probably 15 suicides since 2014," says Kinning. "That's a pretty good success rate."
Brown said that the training has helped her personally save the life of a close friend. Having served in the Air Force for four years, she was tight with another veteran, and she noticed him begin to slip into bouts of depression and rage. One day when he didn’t show up for work, and hadn’t called in sick, she knew something was wrong. She called him as she drove to his house, getting him on the phone and telling him “Don’t hang up.” She found him drunk and holding a handgun, but was able to get him calmed and bring in help.
"It took me back to a time in my life where, if somebody hadn't reached out to me, then there's a possibility I wouldn't be here," she says through tears. "I had no desire to be on this earth anymore. I didn't think it was worth it. Why bother? And somebody took the time to notice my behavior and reach out to me."
To read more about RK Construction, visit NPR.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255