A self-employed builder and broadcaster has spoken out on the need for mental health support and awareness in construction while revealing his own struggles.
The comments from Andy Stevens come alongside recent research by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) which found that almost all construction workers have experienced stress in the last year, and over a quarter have had suicidal thoughts.
“I’m a 6 ft 3, an ex-rugby player with a face like a kicked-in biscuit tin – I’m not the sort of person you expect to stand up and talk about this,” Andy said. “But if one person working in construction can take something from this, then it’ll help.”
CITB works alongside the Lighthouse Club, the construction industry charity, to provide the support that the industry needs. The collaboration has trained almost 5,000 mental health first aiders in the sector, with 6,300 already having been helped by those trained.
Andy, who is a vocal supporter of the Lighthouse Charity, explained that larger organisations have well-established mental health support, but smaller firms and sole traders ‘do not know’ how to access the support they need.
The 45-year-old father of two said that his struggles can be traced back to his childhood. Years down the line, he faced a storm of problems that included workplace stress. Following a friend’s advice, he attended a trauma centre and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety.
“In my opinion, mental health problems are the same as an addiction – until you admit you have a problem, you can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Continued family problems saw Andy’s mental health deteriorate further to a point where he tried to take his own life. “I didn’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, but one day I just awoke in hospital with the mental health team,” he said. “Apparently, I’d called a number and the ambulance had got there just in time, but the whole thing is a blank for me. I woke up from this haze and asked the doctors what was going on.
“I’m certainly a whole lot better now, but most people who met me wouldn’t know I’ve had these problems. I still have sh*t days, and you do have dark thoughts coming back. It doesn’t take much to bring it all back, there are still triggers, and especially not seeing people during lockdown has been particularly difficult.”
Andy identifies one of the main reasons for mental health struggles in construction is the large number of people in the industry who are self-employed. The CITB said that a new initiative will look help resolve this by providing accessible and consistent mental health support across all levels of the industry.
“I’ve had no training in running a business, managing tax returns, negotiating contracts, and if you’re not prepared for it then construction can be brutal. One thing complex PTSD does is screw up your brain, so if staff don’t show up or gear is late to arrive, something simple like an email can take days to do. Finding support in the workplace is impossible – I’ve no idea what’s out there.
“The vast majority of tradespeople will be self-employed at some point, and so those coming through need the support to prepare for that. I still struggle to run a business sometimes, as you don’t know how to do it all, training for this needs to be put in place.
“Big firms have the time, money and resources to do it well, though the average Micro/SME with a small number of staff doesn’t. One day I had a 28-year-old brickie come in and tell me he was ending it that night. He’d been caught cheating and speeding and couldn’t see a way out, but I took the time to sit and chat with him. We need a proper body where people like that can get the mental, physical and financial support and advice that they need.
“Construction is 7% of the country’s GDP, we’re such a big part of the economy without a proper body to look after us. We’re seen as the ones that failed at school who go to work, dig holes, and get dirty for a living. That’s a British class problem, as you’re not viewed that way when you work in construction abroad.
“When you have mental health problems, it’s something that never fully goes away. I’ve had 14 rugby operations but that is nothing compared to the pain mental health can bring, and the difference with mental health is that you can’t see it. You can have a great run, but then a tiny trigger sets you back. It’s still talked about like it’s not real, and nobody knows how to cope or deal with it.
“Construction is still a largely male industry, and you’re not going to have a 6ft 4 skinhead who’s covered in tattoos come to work and say ‘Lads, I’m struggling’. Until we can have that, it will just keep spiralling out of control. Covid has been horrible, and work used to be an escape for some.”
Andy sees the biggest job being to engage with SMEs and ensure they buy into any support scheme, so that people with mental health problems are supported rather than dismissed. Ensuring access across the plethora of companies involved in construction is a key goal of CITB and its partners.
“You’re so busy on a job that you don’t have the time to research it. You’re up at 6am, loading the van, picking someone up, going to work, there until 4pm, go and look at a job, then go and price it up, respond to emails, and suddenly its 11pm and you haven’t eaten yet. You go to bed, get up and repeat. There needs to be the support for these small tradespeople so they know where they can go.
“These people are undervalued, and have a lot more to give than just building your homes and offices. People may be discounted from support groups because they’re covered in sand and cement, plaster, tile adhesive etc, because their Sunday best is jeans and a T shirt, but these are the people we need offering support from their shared experience. These hard workers are the backbone of the construction industry.”
The Lighthouse Club has been delivering charitable support to the construction industry since 1956, delivering emotional and financial support to families in crisis. If you would like to apply for financial or wellbeing support you can either call their 24/7 confidential Construction Industry Helpline for help now (on 0345 605 1956 in the UK, and 1800 939 122 in Ireland) or submit your application online by clicking here.
Samaritans offers a safe place for you to talk any time you like, in your own way – about whatever’s getting to you. The charity won’t judge you or tell you what to do, but will listen to you. Whatever you’re going through, call free any time, from any phone, on 116 123.