Acknowledging My Dark Night: My Mission to Support Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry
May 2, 2023 – 5 min read
By Vince Hafeli
In 2007, when I was 45 years old, I decided I was going to take my own life. Just moments away from taking the final step, I received a caring telephone call that thankfully turned me around.
I didn’t feel comfortable sharing that experience with most of the people in my life, and I lived with that secret for fourteen years. Only three people knew, or so I thought.
I learned in 2022 that my daughter had also known for years – yet we had never talked about it. Neither of us felt comfortable starting the conversation. When we finally did, it was like we could both finally breathe.
I worked in construction, and I decided to pursue a doctoral degree, researching suicide prevention as it relates to the construction industry.
Why? Because construction has the second highest rate of suicide in the U.S. It is a harsh, competitive, macho industry where we do not often share our emotions.
There are many known risk factors for suicide, and many have specific applications when considered in terms of the construction industry. Risks associated with the industry include job insecurity, physical injury, chronic pain, long work hours, unemployment, and lack of access to mental health care. Biological risks include mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Social economic risks include alcohol and substance use problems, marital dissatisfaction/divorce, sleep disruption, debts, and stigma.
When speaking with industry executives, I often find there is a gap in their understanding. They often don’t recognize that the issue of suicide and mental health in the construction industry even exists. How can you fix something you don’t know is broken?
Some industry leaders feel the topic of mental health and suicide doesn’t belong in the workplace. They feel the topic is personal and should be discussed outside of work. They are concerned about HIPAA violations. The list goes on.
When discussing the topic, I ask these experts where they stand on physical safety in the workplace: the use of hardhats, eye protection, safety lanyards, hearing protection, etc.
They are 100% on board with physical safety. I then ask them, "How can you expect someone to be physically safe to themselves and their co-workers if they are struggling mentally?"
I also ask what comes to mind when they think of mental health. 90% of the time, they associate mental health with illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. But I explain to them that we all have mental health – and that it’s something we all need to take care of, just as we do our physical health.
Suddenly these industry leaders are intrigued and want to learn more. They are quick to say, "You are correct. How can we expect our workers to concentrate on being physically safe if their head is not in the game?"
Based on my lived experience and research, I asked myself how I could further deepen the conversation to educate others and make a difference.
I decided I would need to openly share my story from that night in 2007. I would need to build a community of volunteers within the construction industry to advance this cause.
Once I began telling my story, my life changed. I went from someone who suffered from sleep deprivation to someone who now sleeps soundly every night. I worried I would be viewed as weak. However, I have found that others consider me strong and brave for sharing my story.
Every single talk I give, men have sat down next to me and said, "Thank you. I have been struggling, and now I can speak."
While we have not historically discussed mental health in construction, we are an industry that truly cares about our employees. If we genuinely care about their well-being and safety, we must create an environment where they can share their emotions and struggles.
My organization, Ajax Paving Industries of Florida, holds an annual golf event to raise funds for local charities. In July 2022, the fundraising committee approached me and said they had $5,000 they wanted to donate to mental health and suicide prevention. I was humbled in knowing others had listened to my message about advancing our workplace culture and helping those outside of our organization.
They asked me, “What organization should we send it to?”
I reached out to my local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (You can find your local AFSP chapter here.) In addition to many other things AFSP does in local communities (education, loss support, research and advocacy, to name a few), I learned about awareness and fundraising events such as the Out of the Darkness Walks. My meeting with the local chapter representative quickly got me thinking. What if we did a local construction walk in the Sarasota, Florida area, so I could get my employees involved?
But why stop there? I asked other construction industry members if they would like to be involved. Duval Asphalt, Hubbard Construction Company, CWR Contracting, the Engineering Contractors Association of South Florida. They were all on board.
I have heard it said that it’s hard for one person to make a change. But one person can begin a movement.
My personal vision to create a movement began as a single local walk, and quickly became a team vision that grew into a statewide AFSP Construction Hike for Hope, with local, state, and national sponsors. On Saturday, April 15, 2023, all six Florida AFSP chapters hosted the first Construction Hike for Hope. We had five different locations throughout the state – Orlando, Jacksonville, Panama City Beach, Pembroke Pines and Tampa. This first-time event was an amazing success, with 620 participants, raising over $160,000.
It also led to wonderful conversations between people about compassion and caring, and served to raise awareness. It was amazing to see leaders from competing organizations stand together, united in addressing the topics of mental health and suicide.
Now that we have successfully organized this event, my dream is for this to be a national hike in 2024.
AFSP has a new campaign called Talk Away the Dark, in which people are encouraged to learn the warning signs, and know how to have open, honest, real conversations. I was once concerned that I stood alone. The construction industry is made up of phenomenal individuals who are now helping me to spread that light of awareness and understanding, and build a solid foundation of support.
The above is just one example of the many local AFSP awareness and fundraising events going on in communities across the country. Find out about upcoming events in your area here.