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Starting the Dialogue About Mental Health and Trucking PART ONE OF TWO
Little by little the walls of stigma surrounding mental health are starting to crumble. People are starting to open up and talk about some of the rude realities that exist within the trucking sector. Sometimes the words sting. That means the healing has begun. Part one in a two-part series on mental health and trucking puts a human face on a tough subject. We hope it makes a contribution.
When Gerald Burley finally decided to do something about his issue he realized he was quite possibly at the worst stage of his life.
Over the years he’d experienced a string of self-destructive relationships with enablers, had experienced binge drinking and through much of that time was living with a feeling of just being “down.”
Looking back, the 56-year-old Haligonian trucker “always suspected there were issues” he says, but couldn’t readily identify what those issues were or what they meant.
“I went through a down time for about two years where I didn’t go out or do much of anything,” he says. “I was just existing.”
Although Burley denies feeling suicidal, he does admit that he felt “really down” and “going through the worst circumstances of his life,” especially after he tried quitting smoking.
“I had a good job, career,” he says. “ I thought I was happy and just going through a dark spot. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
Elephant in the room
That “dark spot” was eventually diagnosed as depression and it’s a condition that’s likely more pervasive than people in the trucking and transport industries like to admit. Despite the disproportionately higher rates of mental illness present in the trucking industry people still fall prey to the stigma associated with being something “less than.” Despite the presence of national programs like Bell Let’s Talk Day and national training programs offered by everyone from the Canadian Mental Health Association to The Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness remains the proverbial elephant in the room: everyone knows it’s there but nobody wants to discuss it.
Time to change that.
The statistics are nothing short of startling. And in a workplace context, the figures are downright alarming. During any random week more than 500,000—a half-million people, folks—Canadians will miss work because of some kind of mental health issue.
The standard figure usually given is that one-in-five Canadians, or 20 percent of the population is living with some form of mental illness today.
Those are fairly large numbers. But what do they mean exactly? First, let’s start with a working definition of what exactly “mental health” is before driving these numbers home.
Although definitions of mental health vary widely, this article centers on a workplace context, so we’ve chosen to use the definition offered by The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (www.ccohs.ca), which defines “mental health” as “a state of well-being in which a person understands his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
“Both physical and mental health are the result of a complex interplay between many individual and environmental factors, including:
• family history of illness and disease/genetics
• lifestyle and health behaviours (e.g., smoking, exercise, substance use)
• levels of personal and workplace stress
• exposure to toxins
• exposure to trauma
• personal life circumstances and history
• access to supports (e.g., timely healthcare, social supports)
• coping skills
“When the demands placed on someone exceed their resources and coping abilities, their mental health will be negatively affected. Two examples of common demands are: i) working long hours under difficult circumstances, and ii) caring for a chronically ill relative. Economic hardship, unemployment, underemployment and poverty also have the potential to harm mental health.
Conversely, “mental illness” is a recognized, medically diagnosable illness that results in the significant impairment of an individual’s cognitive, affective or relational abilities. Mental disorders result from biological, developmental and/or psychosocial factors and can be managed using approaches comparable to those applied to physical disease (i.e., prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation).”
According to a 2016 federal report:
• Psychological health problems and illnesses are the number one cause of disability in Canada.
• Psychological health problems cost the Canadian economy ~$51 billion per year, $20 billion of which results from work-related causes.
• 47% of working Canadians consider their work to be the most stressful part of daily life.
• Psychological health problems affect mid-career workers the most, lowering the productivity of the Canadian workforce.
• Only 23% of Canadian workers would feel comfortable talking to their employer about a psychological health issue.
Now let’s bring the subject a little bit closer to home and look at the nature of the trucking industry.
A 2016 joint webinar presented by The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) and Trucking HR Canada (THRC) revealed that approximately two-thirds by value, of Canada’s trade to the US is moved by truck. A staggering 400,000 people are employed in the sector including approximately 300,000 commercial vehicle operators.
Drivers are widely considered a vulnerable population with an unacceptably higher risk of injury, disease and mortality –Higher rates of obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and drug addiction than the average individual –Mental health issues play off physical health issues and vice versa. Not surprisingly, occupational stress is highest among longhaul drivers.
There’s also a variety of risk factors that come into play in the industry as well. Some of these include, time pressures, loneliness, boredom, financial pressures, and being away from home for extended periods of time. Compounding this are additional stressors like uncertain driving conditions, fatigue, road rage, dangers around truck stops and violence and the risk of psychological issues increases, as does the risk for unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse and unhealthy sexual behaviours.
There’s a couple of other variables that contribute to the stress of driving and one of these is the fact high injury rate associated with the profession. A 2012 study by the US-based Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration revealed that one-third of all drivers would be involved in an accident at some point in their careers.
Watch For Part Two in the Sprint of 2019