May 7, 2019
I’d like to begin this conversation by recalling a story shared with me a few months back by a first-hand experience of a gentlemen I’ve come to know and respect through our work developing safety champions within a client organization.
Jerry (though not his real name), a superintendent with fifteen years in the trade, had just completed a productive Friday at the construction site. He recalled work went predictably to plan without any incidents or injuries, and as he packed up his gear and began the two-hour commute back to his home and family, he was exhausted by the week yet had a general feeling of satisfaction for what he and his coworkers had accomplished that week.
A few miles short of his home, out of the blue Jerry began to experience shortness of breath, rapid heart rate, and an overwhelming feeling of dread. “I thought at that moment, ‘am I losing my mind, having a heart attack, or about to die?’ I had never experienced these sensations before, and they were terrifying.”
As he pulled in to his driveway and walked inside, the intensity of the experience had subsided but he was still visibly shaken to his observant wife who was preparing for the night shift as an ER triage nurse. Thankfully for Jerry, she was able to rule out a heart attack or other acute medical event.
“Jerry, I think you had a panic attack. We see these often at the ER from people thinking they were having a heart attack.” Just to be sure, she made a call to a trusted colleague to verify the symptoms.
“I didn’t know what this meant, as I had never experienced this before- but what I was most concerned with what this meant for my overall health and ability to provide a living moving forward. Would I be able to share my experience, what would people say or think of me? For a few days I was terrified this would happen again, in maybe a worse circumstance or outcome.”
Recently I was able to catch up with Jerry, still on the project and doing quite well. Jerry made an appointment with his general practitioner, who suggested Jerry meet with a mental health practitioner who specializes in cognitive-behavioral treatment for anxiety and panic attacks. Though he only experienced the one panic attack, through counseling Jerry was able to learn and develop effective strategies for managing anxiety and stress through a holistic approach that included his diet, sleep, and supportive coping skills.
“Since that experience, I’ve changed a lot about how I manage my overall health and well-being. I drink alcohol much less, am eating and remembering to eat! a better diet, and I’m using our company’s Employee Assistance Program to stay mentally fit through better awareness of triggers and behaviors that don’t serve my health well. The aura of having another panic attack is still there, but I have deep breathing and visualization practices keeping me confident and productive like I’ve always been.”
Though Jerry’s story has a positive outcome, sadly and unfortunately many in the construction trade [or any line of work for that matter] do not. Whether imposed or self-imposed stigma, known access to the mental health community of practice, or the use of less effective coping skills (e.g. illicit drugs or excessive alcohol), many good and hard-working people don’t get the level of care they need.
Whether it’s something acute but short-lived in Jerry’s case, a sense that one’s mental health or general well-being is just not what it could be, or something requiring a heightened level of care (e.g. suicidal ideation, major depression and other mood disorders), knowing there are many caring and smart professionals that can help, and taking the courage to reach out for help is what’s greatly needed.
Help advocate for mental health and well-being, whether for yourself, loved ones, friends, or colleagues. Here are some ways to support: