OPINION: May is Mental Health Awareness Month: The time is now



Since the early 2000s, I have had the honor and pleasure of working with researchers in Canada and the United States to help our members improve the physical aspects of safety on the job site (i.e., fall prevention, air nail gun improvements, ergonomics, etc.). We often utilized our joint Labor-management training centers to implement and/or improve related apprenticeship training to this end.

However, it has only been over the past decade that we expanded our focus to include the mental aspects of safety. In fact, since retiring over two years ago, I have dedicated a large portion of my waking hours towards helping both blue- and white-collar people within the construction industry by breaking the silence when it comes to mental health, addiction awareness, and suicide prevention.

Fortunately, my path has crossed with several thought leaders in the St. Louis area. One who comes to mind is Don Willey, business manager of Laborers’ Local 110. In fact, just a few days ago he and I participated in a webinar hosted by CPWR (the research arm of NABTU) on Supporting Construction Workers: Suicide Prevention, Mental Health, & Substance Use.

It is important to note that several recent reports in the U.S. have ranked the construction industry No. 1 when it comes to opioid abuse and suicide. In what has been historically a male-dominated industry, it should come as no surprise that construction ranks where it does when considering factors such as daily exposure to dangers, chronic pain from repetitive motion, seasonal pay, etc.

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated deaths within our communities.

Let me be clear. This is not a union vs non-union issue, it is a human issue.

Accordingly, as union brothers and sisters, we need to do our role in becoming part of the solution vs remaining part of the problem! It is never too late to start and that is why I say the time is now!

Take the first step by watching this video by a fellow St. Louisan, Prince EA, on Mental Health (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YbWRqsnHdo). Then, have a look at what a fellow union member is doing in Las Vegas (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1270330576631605).

As suggested by Jamie Becker, Laborers International Union’s director of the Health Promotion Division for the Laborers’ Health & Safety Fund of North America: “In order to stop the stigma we need to ask two questions: (1) How are you doing?; and, then, follow up with (2) How are you REALLY doing?”


(Dr. John Gaal, a 40-year carpenter, served as the Director of Training & Workforce Development for the St. Louis-Kansas City Carpenters Regional Council. Since retiring,  he as earned industry-recognized credentials as a Certified Peer Specialist and a Certified Community Health Worker in Missouri. In addition, he serves as the president of the International Vocational Education & Training Association. He can be reached at jsgaal59@gmail.com.)


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