Depression: Driven to despair

| December 04, 2001

I know what depression is,” says 64-year-old independent trucker David Billman. “I lost my ambition. I no longer have any pleasure. I don’t feel good.”

The condition Billman describes can strike anyone. But new research by shows that truckers are as much as three times more likely to be seriously depressed than the general public.

Given the nature of long-haul trucking, it’s no surprise. Truckers work mostly alone, spending days, sometimes weeks away from family and friends. They get little respect – and often heaps of disrespect – from those they work with and the motorists who surround them all day. They have little control over much of their job, being subject to the unpredictability of schedules and road conditions, as well as the whims of dispatchers, shippers and receivers.

Their job affects their health, too. Lack of sleep, minimal exercise, poor diet and a tendency to smoke can pave the way for depression or drive them into deeper despair.

“The more physically exhausted we are, the more depressed we are,” says the Rev. Joseph Hunter, a former owner-operator who is founder and president of Truckstop Ministries. “Drivers get in a no-win situation.”

Billman, who hauls manufactured housing, is among the 30 percent of owner-operators in a 2001 Overdrive survey who say depression interferes with their work or personal lives. While most of those truckers have not sought a clinical diagnosis of their condition, their level of response indicates a problem much more widespread than among the general public, where 9.5 percent of all Americans are believed to suffer a depressive illness in any given year.

A depressive illness, or clinical depression, goes beyond ordinary job dissatisfaction or pessimism. It’s a chronic, ongoing set of behavior changes and an inability to enjoy even the good in life.

“Clinical depression is a deep, persistent state, combining feelings of hopelessness, dejection and loss of one’s former identity as a confident and hopeful person,” says John Preston, a neuropsychologist at the Professional School of Psychology in San Francisco. “It is not the sad, dejected feelings we all suffer from time to time. People with clinical depression need help.”

Depression doesn’t just hurt the sufferer and those close to him. A Rand Corp. study found depressed workers cost American businesses $44 billion in decreased productivity in 1990. Depression among truck drivers heightens safety concerns, too. Prolonged stress contributes to depression, and “the most stressful work is that which combines danger with boredom,” says Intimacy and Depression author Ralph Desmarais of Arkansas, a former lumber truck driver who later earned his doctorate.

Truckers must be constantly on guard for fatigue, one of the leading causes of truck accidents in which a four-wheeler is not at fault. Because depression and inadequate sleep feed one another, truckers who begin to have a problem in either area can put themselves and other motorists at risk.

Two years ago, John Nizer, a trucker for 15 years, noticed he was sleeping more and more. He dismissed it as age – he was then 57 – and long hours of work. But as the weeks went by, he found himself sleeping 12 to 16 hours daily when he could, plus taking afternoon naps. He lost interest in tending his lawn and garden. His short-term memory slipped. His hands trembled for no reason, and he had trouble concentrating. “No matter how much I slept, I still felt bone-tired all the time,” he says. He finally went to see his doctor, who diagnosed him with depression.

Billman, the manufactured housing hauler, first reached a point of seeking help when, in the 1970s, his depression increased after leg surgery. His wife took him to a counselor, but he remembers little of the experience. Now, he no longer enjoys working in his home shop. Billman says taking an extended holiday to relieve stress would mean time without pay, and facing a truck repair or other financial emergency when he returned would increase his despair.

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