LEAN-STL offers peer support for St. Louis Laborers fighting addiction

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JOB SITE TALK: Arron Walsh and James Pursell hold a jobsite talk with workers about the Laborers’ LEAN-STL peer support program. – Laborers Local 42 photo

Aaron Walsh remembers the day his recovery from drug addiction began. It was May of 2015 when he spoke with a peer on the jobsite who was clean but had formerly abused drugs like Walsh did.

“I had seen him a couple years earlier. We never talked, but when you’re using, you know the look,” Walsh said. “I saw him a couple years later and he was walking around with a twinkle in his eye. He’s laughing, he’s joking with people, and I asked him what he did.

“I wasn’t ready then, but for those next few months, he would come up to me every couple of days and say, ‘How are you doing, you ready?’ He just wouldn’t leave me alone until that night when I found myself in a garage with my truck running, trying to kill myself. He was the guy I called that night. He told me what to do and I went to treatment that next day.”

For James Pursell, his recovery from alcohol addiction began on the job site on a hot August day in 2016. He had been drinking heavily the night before to deal with his anxiety, downing a bottle of whiskey and several beers.

“I tried to come in and do what I had done before, just push through it, and I went down,” Pursell said.

“Alcohol is a legal drug, and in the trades it’s like liquid aspirin,” he said. “Not everybody has a problem with it. But for me, I was medicating myself. My mental health was deteriorating and I started drinking more. That day, something clicked with me and I knew I had to do something different.”

Walsh, of Laborers Local 42, and Pursell, of Laborers Local 110, are peer recovery support specialists with the LEAN-STL program.

LEAN, which stands for Laborers Escaping Addiction Now, is a newly formed St. Louis-based peer support system and hotline. The program is 100 percent confidential and based on a similar program that was launched in Boston in 2018.

After months of training and certification, Pursell and Walsh offer a variety of resources, contacts and tools to St. Louis Laborers members, including the hotline that members can call for help.

Construction workers have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average, and the rate of suicide for men and women working in construction is about four times higher than that of the general population.

“I believe it’s a combination of the jobs and everything else,” said Rich McLaughlin, president and assistant business manager of Laborers Local 42. “You’ve got guys that get injured on the job and get addicted after being prescribed opioids for pain. You’ve got alcohol use because of stress. You’ve got mental health. It’s the combination of things.

“This is about peers supporting peers,” he added. “These guys are going out to members to help them and their families. They’ve been there, they’ve done it, and they understand.”

“The peer thing is so important,” Pursell said. “None of this ever happens in a vacuum. There are people talking to you the whole way. There are signposts, there are peers along the way who you are having interactions with that are pivotal.

“People around me knew what was going on,” he said. “My boss, mentor and coworker, who were all the same person, he was that guy for me. He was always there. We talked about our families. He knew what was going on, we talked a lot about it. He was there for me that day. He was standing right there and took care of me in that moment, and he took care afterwards. I can tell you in that moment something clicked with me, I knew I had to do something different.”

“It’s about meeting people where they’re at,” Walsh said. “Breaking down that stigma and the shame and the guilt of being an addict or having mental health issues is what we’re about – just supporting people where they are.”

That includes following up with members after they or a family member has started treatment.

Walsh has answered phone calls through LEAN-STL’s hotline since March, and at times, he asked people to text him before they use or after they use, as a way to make sure they are OK and to establish that they can be open with him.

“I had one guy who reached out to me a month later and said, ‘What you said to me that day made me feel really supported. I just want to let you know I’m not using.’ We had a good conversation.”

“We’re kind of building this,” Pursell added. “We want to let the Laborers know that we’re here for them and their families. That we are not part of the business agents. We’re not part of management. Aaron and I are our own health center for these Laborers.”

In addition to working the hotline, Walsh and Pursell have been reaching out with jobsite talks and connecting with union members. They are also finishing up coursework at St. Louis Community College to become certified community health workers in August.

LEAN-STL is supported financially through the Greater St. Louis Construction Laborers’ Fund.

Laborers’ Welfare Director Diana Marburger noted the program is run through the Laborers’ Welfare Fund, not the local unions.

“This is a benefit for our members and their families,” she said. “What we’re doing to promote this now is communications and marketing, wristbands, hardhat stickers, union meetings, job site talks, mailings, coordinating to get on those jobsites and do those talks with the members. We set up the hotline and really immediately starting getting calls.”

The LEAN-STL program offers a variety of tools and contacts for Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), the Veterans’ Crisis Line and the Laborers’ Addiction program.

Members can reach out for support for themselves or their families by calling the LEAN-STL hotline at 844-691-LEAN (5326) or visit the at www.stllaborers.com/lean-stl. The hotline is 100 percent confidential and available 24 hours a day.


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