This is part of Equipment World’s in-depth series that explores the troubling state of mental health in the construction industry and what can be done about it.
Also in this series: Why the Industry’s Suicide Rate So High?
After putting his life on the line for the country, Chaz Gilliam was suffering.
Between the events he witnessed during his military service and his return to civilian life, his post-traumatic stress disorder started manifesting itself.
“I went in because I knew something was wrong,” says Gilliam.
But his job at the local telecommunications company and Veterans Affairs left him with lackluster healthcare options to deal with the weight of the emotions he carried.
“I tried to get mental help, but you get like two sessions, which isn’t enough. It’s not something that’s really thought of and not something included within every healthcare package – somebody’s mental wellbeing.”
Now, Gilliam, who currently owns C&G Excavating in Michigan City, Indiana, sees a psychiatrist and psychologist and attends PTSD training. “After going through classes and the more I learn about it, the more I understand that some things and some behaviors aren’t just the way I am; it’s related to trauma – and you have to have that awareness.”
Veterans accounted for 6.5% of employees working in the construction industry as of 2022, according to the Employment Situation of Veterans report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That population of employees has a 57% higher risk of suicide than those who haven’t served.
Much like the military, the construction industry has a male-dominated employee base and a “just ignore it” mentality, Gilliam says.
“From what I perceive, a lot of guys suffer injuries at work, and they don’t take time off to go to the doctor. Same thing as when I was in the military, you rub dirt on it and keep going.”
It’s a situation that has left many workers with chronic pain and a quick prescription for highly addictive opioids to mask it. Construction workers have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average, according to data from the National Survey on Drug Use conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.
Gilliam says he’s witnessed the same scenario play out time and time again during his now 20 years in the industry.
“Once the prescription runs out, they start using street drugs and their life gets out of control. It just turns into a habit,” he says. “Either they end up overdosing or they start having a mental breakdown. They don’t have any support for these habits because it’s usually a fireable offense. Beyond that, they get marital problems, go through divorce, and things like that. It’s a lot of factors.”
To those who are struggling, Gillman urges them to get over the shame or avoidance of treatment and seek professional help. “It doesn’t mean you’re a weak person,” he says.
He stresses the importance of improving one’s coping skills, likening it to hiring a personal trainer.
“If you’re struggling throwing the ball or shooting, you practice. But if you can’t get better by yourself, you hire somebody to help or get a coach. That’s the reason coaches are there. So, it’s basically the same thing for mental health,” he says. “You go and you get help to improve your skills that need work.”
Contractors’ Stories of Hope
To read other accounts of contractors who have overcome mental health challenges, check out our stories below.
If you are experiencing a suicidal crisis or mental-health-related distress, call or text “988” to connect to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, a national network of more than 200 crisis centers providing 24/7 confidential support from mental health professionals.
Veterans can press “1” after dialing 988 to connect directly to the Veterans Crisis Lifeline which serves veterans, service members, National Guard and Reserve members, and those who support them. For texts, veterans should continue to text the Veterans Crisis Lifeline shortcode: 838255.