The World We Built: Society’s Impact on Blue Collar Suicide

02.13.2018 Arts & Culture
Erynn Brook
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I was asked to write an article about suicide in construction. At first I thought, Why me? I write about media and culture. But I have an uncle and a cousin in construction, so the topic was intriguing to me on a personal level. After some research I found the answer to my question.

I must qualify this by saying that I’m not an expert, just a writer with access to the Internet, and that I’ll be examining this through the lens of culture, which is how I approach most things.

In 2016, the Center for Disease Control released a first-of-its-kind study that analyzed suicide data according to occupation. The highest rates of suicide were found in three occupations: “farming, fishing and forestry (84.5 suicides per 100,000 persons); construction and extraction (53.3); and installation, maintenance and repair (47.9).”

Notice a trend? Those three industries are male-dominated, blue collar and highly subject to seasonal changes.

Now, there are plenty of theories that lend themselves to why these industries in particular are high sources of stress, anxiety and depression — from financial instability to high turnover rates, project based employment, substance abuse due to physical pain management, a lack of sleep and the separation from family.

To help fight the epidemic, lessons have been created for those in managerial positions in hopes that they can better educate their workers on signs and symptoms and be more equipped to combat the stigma against mental health disorders while providing needed support. There are groups devoted to awareness and education, as well as those that call to raise the issue to higher levels so that proper changes can be made.

My question, however, comes in when you add the fact that these industries are not only male-dominated, but are all culturally representative of a certain male identity.

Toxic masculinity is prevalent in these industries by virtue of these industries being defined by a society baked in toxic masculinity.

That doesn’t mean individual workers are toxic dudes. That doesn’t mean that my uncle or cousin are rampant misogynists, living out their sexist dream by being construction workers. That doesn’t mean that those who do take their lives in these industries do so because they can’t handle the toxicity anymore. This isn’t a critique of people, this is a critique of culture.

We have created a world where it is acceptable for people to become broken in the pursuit of survival.

In fact, it is applauded. We have upheld this in many horrible ways, not the least of which is the mental health stigma — however, looking at mental health alone is not a solution when the very way that the machine was built allows for people to be disposable. New support systems and resources are always a good idea, and I’d never knock anything that helps even one person to survive in this mess. But it is a mess — a mess that we, as a society and as a culture, endorse.

The American Dream is rooted in bootstrapping, building, personal sacrifice and survival for the potential of thriving. Construction, farming, fishing, forestry, industrial work — the blue collar industries — all require personal sacrifice (often physical, mental, psychological and irreparable).

More than questioning what exactly we can do to stop construction workers from committing suicide, we should be asking: “What have we done to put them in that position?”

The answer to that is far more nuanced and complex, and gives all of us a responsibility to change this world for the better.

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