The Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) Helpline, available 24 hours a day at 877-884-6227 to SMART members and their immediate families, was put in place long before COVID-19 disrupted the world. The idea for the hotline emerged when stressors from an uncertain economy and a slew of natural disasters created financial and personal stress for many. Then, the pandemic brought unprecedented levels of hardship and anxiety, along with feelings of isolation and loneliness, to a workforce already facing significant risk of mental health problems.

One way to address the problems facing members was to expand access to mental health professionals via a helpline. The SMOHIT Helpline has provided a safe and confidential space where members, and/or their families, can talk to a trained mental health professional about their concerns.

According to Jeremy Holburn, who heads the SMOHIT Helpline, SMART recognized that an increase in call volume necessitated an expansion. In response, SMOHIT added a second staffer, J.D. Sparks, to answer calls on the weekends.

Jeremy Holburn, SMOHIT Helpline

“Our call volume is increasing,” Holburn said. “That’s a good thing because we’re reaching more people, and that increase shows a breaking down of mental health stigma. We’re finally getting it through to people that making a call to deal with your mental health is not a sign of weakness.”

Holburn noted the helpline may be just a first step for some people, or it can be a one-time safe space for people to talk out a single issue.

“We’re there to listen and provide support to anyone who is struggling,” he said. “Sometimes, we need to pair a caller with a local healthcare provider, which can take time. Sometimes, we can just provide a sympathetic ear, an authentic safe space for people to talk it out. Situations are unique.”

The SMOHIT Helpline offers immediate support and can be very helpful in crisis situations. The expanded helpline also remains free of charge. Any SMART member can access the service, regardless of their current situation.

One of the benefits of the helpline is confidentiality. Allowing callers to retain their anonymity, Holburn noted, can provide relief to individuals who may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to seek help in person. They may be more comfortable discussing their concerns over the phone or online as a first step. People can feel safe talking about their feelings without fear of judgment or repercussions.

Another benefit of the service is its accessibility. People can reach out from the comfort of their own homes or any other location at any time of the day; however, there may be times when someone is unable to answer right away. Holburn urges people who don’t get their call answered to leave a message if they are comfortable getting a call back – or, if someone is in serious crisis, to call the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (just dial 988), which also provides free and confidential support 24 hours a day for people in distress in the United States.

“Our helpline is a 24/7 helpline, but we’re not a crisis line,” Holburn said. “Sometimes we’re on the line with someone else and cannot break away to answer another call. You need to leave a message or call back a bit later. We will call you back. Crisis lines like 988 get answered immediately. So, for a true emergency, call there.”

One of the biggest benefits of the SMOHIT Helpline is the pairing of resources. The mental health professionals will help get callers connected with local support and can help navigate insurance challenges as well. And until callers can get the local help they need, they can keep checking in with the SMOHIT Helpline staff.

It’s OK not to be OK, and sometimes the first step toward feeling OK again is reaching out to a friendly and knowledgeable voice. SMOHIT’s Helpline is only ten digits away, at 877-884-6227.

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.” 

Chris Carlough discusses SMART and SMOHIT’s mental health efforts on SMART News.

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.”

September was Suicide Prevention Month. The October 2021 episode of Talking SMART focused on suicide prevention, substance abuse disorder, addiction and all the resources and support available to our members through the SMART Member Assistance Program, or SMART MAP.

Chris Carlough

Our featured guest, SMART Director of Education Chris Carlough, is a man who wears many hats in our union. In addition to preparing new generations of union leaders for the tasks they have ahead of them when they start their careers, he also runs SMART MAP.  

“When I hear that we have people that need help,” said Carlough, “I think back to when I needed help and the call was received. And I got the help that I needed. And I believe it’s my duty to go and do the same thing for our members and the families that are out there struggling.”

At the end of this episode, listen for the open mic segment with SMART General President Joseph Sellers. He responds to a question about the suicide prevention trainings that SMART is hosting, and how they can help connect SMART members in crisis with member assistance programs.

Return to Talking SMART index page.

Talking SMART is a member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network — working people’s voices, broadcasting worldwide 24 hours a day.