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How LEAN-STL helps St. Louis laborers fight addiction

 James Pursell, Don Willey and Aaron Walsh
Emily Woodbury
Don Willey, middle, advocated for the Laborers Health & Welfare Trust Fund to bring the LEAN program to St. Louis. James Pursell, left, and Aaron Walsh, right, serve as peer support specialists for LEAN-STL.

Construction workers have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average, and the rate of suicide for men working in construction is about four times higher than that of the general population.

“There were too many funerals that I went to for suicides, too many for overdose,” said Don Willey, who worked with Laborers' Local 110 for 37 years as both a laborer and as a business manager. “We have members that are grandparents that are raising their grandchildren.”

Laborers are more prone to injury, Willey said, and he’s seen many fall into addiction after being prescribed opioids for pain. In construction work, there’s also the stress of not knowing when the next job assignment will come.

A newly formed St. Louis-based peer support system and hotline aim to lower these statistics. LEAN-STL, which stands for “laborers escaping addiction now,” is based on a similar program that was launched in Boston in 2018. Seeing the Boston program’s success, Willey brought the idea to St. Louis.

“People with lived experience, that have attained recovery and been in recovery for a while … it's the best weapon we have against this mental health and substance use crisis we have in this country,” he said.

After months of training and certification, LEAN-STL peer support specialists James Pursell and Aaron Walsh are ready to offer a variety of resources, contacts and tools to St. Louis Laborers members and their families.

The work is personal for Pursell and Walsh. They each struggled with mental health issues and addiction, and support from fellow construction workers was what led both of them to recovery.

“What we do is meet people where they're at,” Walsh said. He has answered phone calls through LEAN-STL’s hotline since March, and at times, he asked people to text him before they use or after they use, as a way to make sure they are OK and to establish that they can be open with him.

“One of the guys had contacted me about a month later and said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know that when you had called me and said that, that day, it made me feel very supported.’” Walsh said. “That, for me, is harm reduction — making sure if you want to continue to use, to know that, ‘Hey, I'm still here for you.’”

Emily Stuckey
Emily Woodbury
Emily Stuckey is CEO of ARCHway Institute

As they continue to take calls through the hotline, Walsh and Pursell are finishing up coursework at St. Louis Community College to become certified community health workers in August.

LEAN-STL is supported financially through the Greater St. Louis Construction Laborers' Fund. Emily Stuckey, CEO of ARCHway Institute, an organization that works to aid those seeking recovery support, would like to see similar programs offered in other industries through employee assistance programs.

“Currently peer services aren't reimbursed through commercial insurance. Eventually we would like to see it go that way, and I don't think it's too far off,” she said. “People are seeing that it's working.”

For Willey, seeing Walsh and Pursell excel in their training and in peer support these past few months has been inspiring.

“It takes a lot of energy and creativity to be an addict; it is huge. And when they can turn those resources and those skill sets around for the good, it's just amazing to watch,” he said. “It's love; it's beautiful.”

To learn more about how peer support works, what makes it effective and how it can be utilized by other industries, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast or Stitcher or by clicking the play button below.

How LEAN-STL uses peer support to help laborers fight addition

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.