Experiencing Loss on the Job Turns to Advocacy
Cailona*, a Local 59 member and fourth-period apprentice, recalls suicide being a common topic growing up on the Spokane reservation.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. suicide rate is up 33 percent since 1999. Still, the increase is even greater for American Native and Alaska Native men and women. Native communities are experiencing higher rates of suicide than all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S., with suicide being the eighth leading cause of death across all ages.
Cailona remembers a Native comedian who visited her school on the reservation to talk to her class about suicide. She found it relatable and comforting to have a funny person talking about something so serious and heavy.
When Cailona lost her first journeyman to suicide, she was surprised to learn how heavily impacted the construction industry was as well. The CDC states that the construction industry has the highest suicide rates of all occupations. Death by suicide is greater than all other construction fatalities combined.
“Before my journeyman passed, I didn’t know the suicide rates [in the industry]. I remember my heart dropped, and I was frozen,” said Cailona. “I feel like when you lose somebody, you never really get over it. It gets easier over time, but it’s never going to go away.”
Cailona and her first journeyman didn’t start off with the best relationship. As she explains it, she came into carpentry not knowing much but wanting to learn, and he was “very crass.”
“He thought I was a prissy woman who couldn’t handle the punches. He was a horrible communicator. He loved to try to ignore me or brush me off. He told me I didn’t belong in ‘a man’s world,’” said Cailona. “I didn’t take no for an answer. It was a process. I stuck up for myself when I saw fit.”
Cailona started being frank with her journeyman. She recalls telling him, “If [you] want to challenge me, I’m up for it. If you actually want me to be of use, you have to take 5-10 minutes to slow down and explain it to me. I’m doing the best I can here. I can see how frustrating it is for you. I get that, but know, I’m no quitter, and day-by-day I will show up. You may never like me, [but] I am okay with that. To succeed, I really want to be on the same page where we can work together.”
Cailona is a firm believer in mindset making all the difference. She started asking her journeyman more questions about his family and began to learn more about his interests and habits. She learned he had a daughter around her age and she used that and compassion to build her relationship with him.
After determination and time, Cailona and her journeyman developed a friendship of respect and lots of jokes. She would tell him he was the dad she never had. One day, though, he didn’t show up for work. Thinking he was running late, Cailona got to work. Then the whole day passed and he was nowhere to be found. The next morning no one had heard from him either. A search party was formed and found he had killed himself.
“I lost my first journeyman to suicide. I never really talk about it because it was hard. No one on the job knew his battles and it was all such a shock. No one would have guessed he ever thought about it,” said Cailona. “I never would have guessed he thought of suicide, you know? At the end of the day, he was always a happy, let’s-get-it-done kind of guy.”
Having conversations about suicide has weighed on Cailona since she was a girl. She wasn’t sure how to address the loss of her first journeyman and after quite some time passed, she took to Facebook to share a post about her experience.
“Sharing my experience helped me not to feel so alone,” said Cailona. “We all have battles. I think a simple, ‘You good, bro?’’ is necessary. You never truly know what battles people face. Check on one another. I wish I would have asked, ‘How are you?’ more.”
Cailona is now determined to bring more awareness to suicide and is working to support a task force Northwest Carpenters Union is developing to prevent suicide and break the stigma around mental health. “I never thought when I first shared my story online that I’d be able to make a big impact. I just wanted to share so I could help or relate to another person,” said Cailona. “I feel that many people don’t talk about their emotions. It is uncomfortable being vulnerable. I want to help change that. I believe if you know the warning signs, you can save a life. My loss is painful. I have gained more compassion and understanding. I don’t leave a brother or sister until I know they are good or they know I’m here for them. It took losing someone I grew close with to gain that perspective. I don’t want anyone else to feel this pain.”
Having the support of other carpenters is one of the best resources we can have as our industry experiences the highest rates of suicide in the nation. Our union is investing in suicide prevention training for Brother and Sister leaders. If you see this hard hat sticker on your job site, this carpenter has the resources to help.
*Last name is being withheld to protect member’s privacy.