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Boldt construction company implements peer suicide prevention program

To help combat high suicide rates among construction workers, Boldt has introduced a peer-support program across its company, including in Cloquet, to help employees find resources and support.

A sticker on a Boldt hard hat says "It's OK to ask me for help."
Volunteer gatekeepers in Boldt's suicide prevention program are identified by purple stickers that say "It's OK to ask me for help."
Contributed / Boldt
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CLOQUET — Construction is one of the most common occupations of people who die by suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated in its most recent National Violent Death Reporting System report. At The Boldt Co., this statistic caused such alarm that the commercial construction company introduced a peer support program to help employees find resources for mental health struggles.

The program, which was implemented last year, has recruited 80 employee volunteers across the company to become "gatekeepers." These gatekeepers undergo training so they know what tools and resources they can use when a co-worker is in need. They also learn to identify warning signs of suicide. They're then identifiable by a purple sticker that says, "It's OK to ask me for help," which is placed on their hard hat or office door. There are seven gatekeeper volunteers at Minnesota Boldt sites, based in Cloquet, Rochester, Minneapolis and Woodbury.

Keith Wilmer, Minnesota operations safety manager, said the program has been an integral start in breaking down stigma for construction workers to be open about their mental health. He also volunteers as a gatekeeper.

“I think part of it is the stigma that construction workers are big, tough people," Wilmer said. "We don’t talk to people. The industry is hard. Many of our jobs have to get done in a certain time, and we also work away from home quite a bit.”

He said long shifts for multiple days in a row are both physically and mentally demanding, which can take its toll on construction workers.

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Jonathan Ballmer, business development director for Boldt, said the pandemic didn't help those problems. Since construction was deemed essential work, people in the field didn't have any time away to process the effects of pandemic stress, which was added on to any existing mental health struggles people may have been having.

The CDC found that construction and extraction was the occupational group with the highest suicide rates among men in 2012, 2015 and 2017, according to 2018 and 2020 reports. According to the CDC's National Violent Death Reporting System, 53.2 per 100,000 men in the occupation died by suicide in 2015.

For Cloquet project coordinator and gatekeeper Chelsea Morris, the drive to prevent suicide strikes a personal chord.

“When I heard there was going to be a gatekeeper program for suicide prevention, I think the initial thing that drew me to it is I’ve been touched by suicide in my life," Morris said. "There’s been several people that have affected my life in that way, and that’s what initially sparked my interest. I just wanted to be part of taking away that stigma and do any part to prevent it.”

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is offered at three area clinics, and uses magnetic pulses to activate parts of the brain that are underutilized in people with depressive symptoms. TMS is especially effective for medication-resistant depression.

While the volunteers are not therapists, they are available to listen to their peers about what's troubling them, then help them take the next steps to talk with a professional. Wilmer said they don't offer advice, but they hope the program is breaking down barriers to make it easier for people to speak out when they need help.

“We’re just that touching point for someone who has thoughts and doesn’t know who else to talk to, just so we can point them in the right direction,” Morris said.

Wilmer said the program's impacts aren't tangible because of confidentiality, but he does believe the program has been really constructive. Ballmer added that other national initiatives advocating for people to speak out about mental health has given several employees the confidence to come forward and engage.

“It’s really this idea that people are feeling really isolated and alone, and wanting to provide a way for those folks to be able to feel that there’s an outlet to connect and find a pathway to a better solution than suicide,” Ballmer said. “I think it’s a relatively new concept, at least in our circle, and that’s why we want to share it. Because we don’t want it to be unique to us. We really want it to be something that everyone’s talking about industry-wide.”

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The Boldt representatives are hoping the idea for the peer support program catches on with other construction companies. They hope to connect with other companies to collaborate on other mental health advocacy projects, to both strengthen the Boldt initiatives and build programming at other companies.

"We don’t want to be unique, and anything with mental health that’s public is breaking down the stigma," Morris said. "I just think it’s extremely important to keep doing that and to keep being open about these things so eventually people don’t feel weird or ashamed to tell people they’re struggling.”

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In addition to their purple stickers, each gatekeeper's name is placed on a list with their phone numbers. Those contacts are posted on job sites and in offices, and employees can reach out to any of the 80 gatekeepers at any time.

"I think just seeing those names on the sheet of who wanted to be a gatekeeper was a big thing," Morris said. "The people you could approach that maybe you’ve never thought of them like this before, I think that’s super important in construction, especially among men.”

Both Morris and Wilmer work out of the firm’s Cloquet office but support project teams across Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Boldt is headquartered in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“Things like this, you can tell how much Boldt cares about their employees," Morris said. "This isn’t the only program they have to help employees, and it’s really nice to see them embrace the mental side, instead of just the physical. I think it’s a great step forward and I hope to see other companies roll out with similar things.”

To get help

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 
  • Crisis Text Line: Text MN to 741741 
  • More Lifeline resources: speakingofsuicide.com/resources
  • South St. Louis, Lake, Cook and Carlton counties/Fond du Lac Band: 218-623-1800 or 844-772-4742 
  • North St. Louis County/Bois Forte Band: 218-288-2100 
  • Itasca County: 218-326-8565 or 211* 
  • Koochiching County: 800-442-8565 or 211* 

*St. Louis County 211 services are not crisis-related

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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