Canada has a mental health crisis. In fact, in any given year, one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness and by the time Canadians reach 40, 50 per cent have, or have had, a mental illness, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).
“I would absolutely say that we are in a period of great concern in construction as a whole,” explained Kim Barbero, CEO of the Mechanical Contractors Association of British Columbia (MCABC). “When I look at the statistics, they are sobering.”
In Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth and young adults, aged 15 to 34 years old. According to Statistics Canada, the rate of suicide among men is three times higher than compared to women. It is even higher for those in construction, “If you look at the construction industry, the rate of suicide is three to four times higher than the national average,” explained Barbero.
The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates compared to other industries. In 2016, the suicide rate for men in construction and extraction occupations was 49.4 people out of 100,000, which is also five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry in 2018 (9.5 out of 100,000). The CDC is based in the United States and as such, these numbers reflect construction workers in the states.
Talking it out
During the first year of the pandemic, MCABC hosted its very first #coffeetalks meet-up with its members to discuss psychological resilience during the pandemic. Due to the large turnout, the association held another event last year with Corey Hirsch, former Vancouver Canuck, to discuss his mental health journey.
The latest #coffeetalks event was held in May 2023 and focused on normalizing the conversation around mental health, “That was really the intention. It’s a very safe spot where some people feel that by sharing some of their personal journeys, they can help in normalizing that discussion,” explained Barbero. “We’re not in there trying to solve mental health. We’re trying to normalize the conversation around it.” A representative from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) led the latest discussion. “She was really able to raise awareness around how when we see someone with a physical illness or disability, we know how to react to that,” said Barbero. Mental health isn’t something that can be tangibly seen and as such, people don’t always recognize the challenges the individual might be suffering with under the surface. This is where a safe space to talk can help, says Barbero.
Those in attendance wanted to be able to bring back skills that could help them normalize the conversation around mental health in their own companies. They received a list of resources that could help their employees. This included BounceBack, Here to Help, Living Life to The Full, Re-Mind, and Confident Parents, Thriving Kids. Sharing these resources with employees can help them seek out help on their own time and at their own pace.
Another key point to remember in the conversation surrounding mental health is education. “We are working to be more involved in ensuring that we’re providing either pathways or actual education to leaders and managers in the industry. It’s about education. It’s about understanding what you know and where you can go. It’s about knowing that you don’t have to suffer in silence.”
There are also new resources coming out that will specifically help women move into the trades. Statistics Canada recently released its labour force study on the proportion of women and men employed in occupations for 2022. At the national level for “trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations,” only 7.4 per cent identified as women, leaving the large majority being male (at 92.6 per cent).
In its goal to help more women in the trades, MCABC partnered with She Summits, an organization whose goal is to empower and support the personal development of women. “When they show up at an MCABC member company worksite, they can show up with confidence and a feeling of well-being,” explains Barbero. “That’s one area that’s not just focused on — bringing women into our trades. But it’s important to us. How can we ensure that we are providing connections for them so that as they are coming into male-dominated trades, they are making a difference and coming in with a sense of confidence and well-being.”
Root of the issue
Why the construction industry specifically has such a higher rate of suicide and mental health issues isn’t exactly known. But the Canadian Construction Association (CCA) gave a presentation in partnership with the Canadian Psychiatric Association, which gave some suggestions as to why. They theorized this could be due to a list of reasons, including unstable employment, adverse working conditions, serious or fatal injury to themselves or a co-worker, addiction, or violence (whether in the home or on the job).
Note to Readers: The Plumbing & HVAC staff did not attend the #coffeetalk event as we wanted to allow for the event to remain a safe space for MCABC’s members. We sat down with Kim Barbero following the event.