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Men’s Mental Health Month: “We Must Keep Talking About It”

Men’s Mental Health Month: “We Must Keep Talking About It”


This June we’ve been talking with Pinkard people with unique perspectives on Men’s Mental Health Month, including Safety Manager Dave Ruddy and Project Engineer Bryce Heitsmith.

Next month will mark two years since the passing of a former Pinkard employee, who took his own life in July of 2022. He was a beloved part of our leadership team—the kind of guy who lights up a room and would give you the shirt off his back—and his tragic passing shook our company to the core. Even for the people who he worked with regularly, the news came as a complete shock, seemingly without warning. As too often happens, no one saw it coming.

This is not an easy thing to talk about. (Out of respect to his friends and family we’ve omitted his name here.) But if there’s one constant theme in the men’s mental health discussion, it is that our very reluctance to talk about these topics is one of the most pervasive reasons why suicide prevention is such a challenging problem.

With that in mind, we are wrapping up our month-long series by sitting down with Jeff Kessler, Pinkard’s Director of Human Resources, to discuss this challenging topic and the greater challenges of addressing men’s mental health in construction.


Why is men’s mental health a specific issue worth focusing on?

For men in Western society, there's a certain stigma associated with asking for help in general. That can manifest in more benign ways, like the classic joke of dad never asking for directions, but it becomes a really big problem when you’re talking about mental health.

Particularly among jobs like first responders, military folks, and construction workers, you have this “strap on your boots and you just do it” mentality that can lead to isolation from sharing. Then you look at construction specifically, which is predominantly composed of men, and you start to see this perfect storm of statistical probability where mental health issues and suicide are a real problem.

What kind of statistics are you seeing?

I’ll list a few. [HR consulting firm] Mercer just came out with their 2024 People Risk Survey, and mental health is the number one concern among Human Resource directors nationally.

In the construction industry, 83 percent of people have experienced mental health issues in some form. That’s four out of five of us!

When you’re talking about suicide, Colorado has the sixth highest suicide rate in the country. Nationwide, construction workers are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to other professionals, and four times more likely than the general population.

From the standpoint of the pandemic, we’ve sort of entered this era of “permacrisis,” where it feels like it’s always one thing after another. Last year there was a 65 percent increase in mental health leaves of absences across the US.

And so the issue is: how do we get people help? Not only because it's the right thing to do from a cultural standpoint, but from a business standpoint. It has a real impact on productivity, both in the form of absenteeism and “presenteeism,” where someone is there but they're not engaged, which leads to safety issues and accidents on the job.

Why does mental health seem to be worse in our industry?

Part of it is the “I'm just going to do it and not talk about it” mentality. Part of it is that construction workers work hard physically, which means there is a lot of pain associated with work, especially as you get older. And of course when you’re dealing with the deadlines and budget inherent to our industry, there’s a huge component of stress.

When one or more of these issues flares up and combines with what might be going on in someone’s personal life—be it relationship troubles, financial troubles, loneliness, depression—the mental and emotional toll can just domino. It’s rarely one thing.

Do you see a generational difference?

Yeah, we do. The statistics say that Gen Z is 1.9 times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than other generations, but they’re also more likely than older workers to trust and utilize the mental health resources that a workplace provides. It’s sort of a chicken and egg question as to whether younger people are actually experiencing more mental health issues or whether they’re just being open about it due to it becoming less stigmatized.

How does substance abuse play into men’s mental health?

There’s definitely a culture of self-medicating. That can be due to mental or physical pain. Substance abuse among construction workers is 14.3 percent, versus 9.5 percent in general. Nearly one in six construction workers say they have five or more drinks in one sitting on at least five occasions per month, which is the definition of alcohol abuse.

So what is Pinkard doing to help?

With the help of AGC [Associated General Contractors], we’ve put together a robust mental health program. This includes providing our employees numerous mental health services through Magellan EAP [Employee Assistance Program], Youturn Health, and Cigna Behavioral Health, as well as trying to raise awareness in the industry in general, such as what Dave Ruddy has done with putting up suicide prevention stickers in our porta-potties.

One of our biggest internal strategies is leadership engagement. [Pinkard president] Tony [Burke] has been very active in trying to create an organization where our leadership openly and regularly talks about mental health in order to normalize it and reduce the stigma. That’s huge, because it doesn't really matter if you have a lot of resources if people are too ashamed to use them.

Like Bryce mentioned, we staff our projects to ensure people don’t burn out. And we really, really stress making sure people take vacations in order to recharge, which is a harder sell than you might think. Oftentimes, especially when it comes to superintendents who feel so responsible for a job, you almost have to force them out the door to take a vacation for their own good.

Did losing a Pinkard team member to suicide change things?

Because of the statistics we’ve already discussed, mental health and suicide prevention were already a focus for us, but we got a big dose of awareness when he passed. It was no longer an abstract concept, and it probably woke some people up.

The biggest lesson for me is how well hidden these mental struggles can be. He was this beloved, charismatic figure, and no one at Pinkard had any idea that he was in so much pain. He was superman at work, but we just don't know what factors outside his work life were at play. Had he made it known he was struggling so deeply, so many people would have dropped everything to help him. That is why we must keep talking about it.

What are some of the warning signs to look out for?

Look for signs of despair. You might notice them giving away stuff or talking about firearms in a certain manner. If someone says something like, “Nothing matters,” “No one cares,” “I’m giving up,” or “I may not be here tomorrow,” they might be trouble.

If we’re worried about someone, what can we do?

When you notice someone acting that way, one of the best things you can do is just talk to them about it directly, rather than downplay it or pretend to ignore it. A lot of people think, Oh, I'm not going to ask if they're thinking of hurting themselves because that might make them do it, but that’s not the case. The idea is to actually say, “Hey, I really care about you. Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” They can be surprisingly honest when you ask that. Depending on how bad it is, you can either keep talking to them, encourage them to call 988 [the national Suicide Hotline] right away, or call 911 yourself if it’s an emergency.

Should we talk to HR?

Especially if you’re not comfortable confronting a coworker you’re worried about, you can always come to us. If we see someone who is really spiraling, we will sit down with them and say, “Look, we care about you. Why don’t you talk to someone?” We’ll get them an evaluation call with Magellan EAP, and then we’ll duck out. We stay out of their business from there, but we will get information back from Megellan that says, “They have a treatment plan,” or "This person is okay. They just needed a tool that we've already provided them with.”


YOU MATTER: If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, we urge you to call or text “988” to reach the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, where you can confidentially talk with a trained crisis counselor 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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