America’s Work Force Union Podcast (AWFP) put the spotlight on union sheet metal workers’ mental health during Suicide Prevention Week, bringing on SMART Members Assistance Program (MAP) Coordinator Chris Carlough to discuss how SMART is working to equip members with the tools they need to support one another, whether with substance use or mental health issues.
“We’ve been doing it nationwide, local by local, since the year before the pandemic,” Carlough said. “[That’s when] we started to really connect with our members and build this peer network.”
Carlough has been a SMART member for nearly 40 years, working as an organizer, education director and now, for the last year and half, as a mental health advocate for SMART members and families. As he told AWFP host Ed “Flash” Ferenc: “I’m an alcoholic, I’m a drug addict, I’ve been in recovery for most of my adult life … I had a lot of people that came and helped me when I was young, I’m actually coming up on 20 years back in the program. So yeah, it’s pretty personal to me, and when I have the opportunity to help people, I try to be that person who helped me so many years ago.”
SMART’s emphasis on mental health training dates back to Carlough’s time as education director, he said. At the time, there was a need to guide local union leaders through the enormity of the job that they take on when they win election. Jurisdiction, finding and securing work, organizing and the like are all huge parts of the role – but, Carlough explained, local leaders also may find themselves taking phone calls that they’re not accustomed to from members in crisis.
“If you don’t have any experience in that, what do you do? We wanted to put together some training around that, so we did around 10 years ago. And it didn’t matter how much we were talking about it, the people that we were training wanted more.”
In the trades, Carlough explained, there often exists a stigma around being vulnerable about mental health – leading many members to struggle with opening up to union brothers and sisters, friends and even family. It’s an issue that affects workers from a wide range of paths, including but certainly not limited to new members who enter the trade with their own past traumas and pain; members who experience isolation and loneliness when travelling for work; members who experience injury on the job and may need to take medication; and many more.
That makes peer-led training and mentoring vital for members across North America, Carlough said. SMART and SMOHIT have been providing awareness training and education for leaders, instructors, apprenticeship coordinators, organizers and others for years – but the pivot to training rank-and-file members was crucial. Members struggling with substance use or mental health issues, he noted, may not feel comfortable reaching out to their apprentice coordinator or business agent. But they might be willing to talk to – or be approached by – a fellow rank-and-file brother or sister.
“We’re trying to train as many members as we can – people that have trust and credibility, and who care,” he said.
As part of the SMART MAP peer training program, instructors train members on early intervention – spotting the signs of a problem and getting people the help they need – as well as navigating logistical details, such as insurance information, and how to follow up with a member in recovery, provide support after treatment and more.
Overall, Carlough says, members’ response to the new focus on peer training has been “kind of glorious.” Taking care of one another is a core tenet of our union and the labor movement – adding a more specialized skill set and training has only bolstered the ability for members to give each other the support they need. Whether it’s providing more knowledge about which entities and treatment centers to trust, or simply teaching techniques on effective listening, the SMART MAP is helping members strengthen the bonds of solidarity that tie us together – and members have been eager to participate.
“It’s in our DNA – it’s always been a ‘looking out for your brother and sister’ movement,” Carlough said. “At the center of our hearts, we have that responsibility and that desire to look out for each other.”