Meeting of ‘The Tribe’ tackles mental health

Meeting of ‘The Tribe’ tackles mental health

The Tribe at one of their events.

According to the CDC, the suicide rate among construction workers is more than five times higher than the average suicide rate in the United States, with one out of every 2,000 construction workers killing themselves annually. 

The feeling of isolation can often be a silent accomplice to the epidemic of suicide, as individuals deprived of meaningful connections often find themselves grappling with depression in solitary silence. 

To address the issue of social isolation, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 286 journeyman welder Sean Miller and journeyman pipefitter Collen Farris created The Tribe

Local 286 experienced more than a dozen preventable deaths among its members over the last few years. These tragic losses highlighted the urgent need to address mental health within the Local. 

The Tribe’s mission is to create a sense of community and support among Local 286 members.

“We call it The Tribe because it’s not about the individual; it’s about all of us,” Miller said. 

Miller and Farris wanted to devise a solution they thought the rank-and-file members would respond to. 

“Everybody kept saying we need to do something about this, but none of the proposed solutions seemed to be working,” Miller said. “We were still losing members. The first thing that we decided we needed to do was bring the guys together. We work with a bunch of dudes, and what do dudes like? Knives. So, we decided we were going to make knives.”

The first activity Miller and Farris organized was knife making. The activity quickly became popular, growing from 10 participants to almost 40 at the next event. 

“We’ve had a lot of feedback,” Farris said. “One guy, he made a knife, and at the end of it, he said, ‘I don’t know the last time I had a good time where there were no drugs or alcohol involved. I really appreciated you guys.’”

To support the mission of the growing Tribe, Miller and Farris reached out to various individuals and organizations for assistance. 

One of the first people they enlisted was veteran member Jonathan Albritton, a great team builder who shares his wisdom about enduring hard life lessons and is a good resource for the members to talk to. 

With his help, The Tribe expanded to organized activities such as ruck marches, rock climbing, and camping. Miller said the idea behind the more strenuous activities is to create endorphins to improve mental well-being. 

“One of the things we have really leaned hard on is wilderness therapy,” Albritton said. “We ask these guys to do really hard things on their days off. The ruck marches that we do with our guys, we are working towards rucking with 70 pounds, and we’re walking for miles on uneven terrain. It’s not about how in shape you are; it’s about how hard we’re going to dig together.”

The Tribe continues to break down mental health stigma

Miller, Farris and Albritton quickly learned that when these men were being pushed to their physical breaking point, they opened up about their personal lives. 

Miller and Farris didn’t have a background in suicide prevention or mental health, so they collaborated with the Director of Suicide Prevention Policy and Services for Texas Health and Human Services and came up with an approach for the mental health aspect of the program. 

“We’re not just running around in the woods pretending we’re Robin Hood all the time,” Miller said. “We’re also trying to give real training to these guys because we are each other’s keepers.”

In the beginning, Miller and Farris funded these events out of their own pockets and provided the materials for the participants at each one of the events. 

Soon, the local union stepped in with funding to support The Tribe. Making The Tribe a successful program is a big undertaking, but the team is willing to work overtime to nurture it because they are passionate about finding a real solution for those struggling with mental health. 

“We truly believe this is much bigger than us,” Miller said. “Austin, Texas isn’t the only place facing this pandemic. It’s everywhere.” 

Miller, Farris and Albritton noted that their efforts are not only aimed at preventing suicide but also at fostering a change in attitude within their community. 

“We must have a culture change,” Farris said. “We go through something tough, and we deal with it on our own because we feel like, as men, we’re supposed to do that. But it’s not right. It doesn’t work. If it did, all of these guys wouldn’t be killing themselves.” 

Mental health is often seen as a taboo topic, leading to individuals suffering in silence. The Tribe is breaking down these barriers by fostering an environment where members can openly discuss their mental health concerns without judgment. 

The Tribe has received support from Local 286 Business Manager Chap Thorton and Training Director Joe Cooper. 

“Without them, there’s no way we could have done this,” Miller said.

Miller, Farris and Albritton have been documenting their experiences to serve as a blueprint for other Local Unions that are interested in implementing a similar program at their home Local. 

They hope to continue making a difference with The Tribe. 

If you feel encouraged to get involved or start a similar program for your Local Union, please contact Sean Miller, Collen Farris, or Jonathan Albritton at