Trade union confronts high rates of suicide and addiction in construction with free treatment

By: - January 24, 2023 6:05 am

Apprentice Chirstsoe Kuhtoo practices drywall finishing in at the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest in Little Canada on Jan. 19, 2023. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Construction and mining workers are more likely to die by suicide or of an opioid overdose than workers in any other profession, yet mental health treatment in those male-dominated industries is scarce and often stigmatized.

A Minnesota trade union is confronting the problem with a trailblazing program that provides free mental health and chemical dependency treatment to its members at its apprenticeship school.

The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 — which represents 3,500 painters, drywall finishers and glaziers across the upper Midwest and Montana — recently hired two full-time mental health professionals to work at the union’s training center in Little Canada.

“Our goals with this effort (are to) help folks achieve better states of mind and overall well being,” said John Burcaw, director of academic education at the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest. “Healthy employees are going to be more productive, safer and more efficient.”

Construction workers are seven times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than other workers. That’s driven by the high rates of physical injuries on the job that lead workers to prescription painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The construction industry also has one of the highest rates of suicide — second only to mining. That’s partly a reflection of the industry’s predominately white male workforce. Men are about four times more likely to take their own lives than women, and white men are especially vulnerable.

The nature of construction also makes workers more at risk for suicide, due to high job stress, job insecurity in economic downturns and a hyper-masculine culture that has traditionally scorned talking about emotions or seeking help for mental illness.

While construction may carry heightened risks for addiction and depression, Burcaw says unions are well-positioned to help workers overcome those challenges. After all, the union saved him.

John Burcaw led an effort to bring on-campus mental health services at the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest in Little Canada. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“As a younger fellow, who probably made every mistake underneath the sun, I found myself addicted, homeless, and incarcerated,” Burcaw said. “Through the mentorship that I received in my apprenticeship, man did I turn a corner … I believe that I’m healthy and alive and sober today as a result of getting into an apprenticeship.”

Burcaw joined the painters’ union in 1990 before becoming an instructor. Prior to moving to Minnesota three years ago, Burcaw led an effort out of the union’s national office called “Helping Hand” aimed at raising awareness of mental health and substance abuse risks and the resources available to union members.

The union trains about 400 apprentices every year and provides continuing education to another 1,500 workers at its school, all of whom will have access to an on-site chemical dependency counselor and care coordinator.

The two full-time mental health professionals will provide counseling and crisis response and help union members access long-term services like in-patient treatment programs. Students will also have access to courses on providing “mental health first aid” and changing the culture of construction.

“It’s not easy to talk about these things in a male-dominated workforce,” Burcaw said. “What’s absolutely amazing, however, is when we do start talking about it, everybody really opens up pretty quickly.”

The effort is funded through a $2 million federal grant secured by U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum for the union’s school, which will allow it to double enrollment over the next two years.

Many unions have generous health insurance plans and programs to help their members with mental health issues, but those resources are often underutilized, Burcaw said. That’s why they wanted to have services embedded into the school.

Burcaw said the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest is the only apprenticeship school in the country he’s aware of that will have mental health professionals on campus every day.

Mental health support is common at four-year colleges and universities, and it’s something parents have come to expect trade schools to offer, too, Burcaw said.

The program builds on years of work at the union to reduce the stigma around talking about mental health, and a larger push to develop a culture that’s more sensitive to students’ personal challenges. For example, the school also eliminated its strict attendance policy.

“If you miss three classes, I’m not just going to throw you away. If you miss class, we want somebody to check on you,” Burcaw said.

In addition to the mental health professionals on staff, Burcaw said the union is training “peer supporters,” rank-and-file members who can help fellow workers find support and navigate the resources the union already provides.

“We are confident that as long as we knock down these barriers, and we continue to reduce stigma, that folks will get the help that they need,” Burcaw said.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Previously, he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.