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.

“I try to work hard enough that I don’t remember the depression,” the Kansas resident says. “The harder it gets, the harder I work. I work, and I lie down, and I work and lie down. I have a new pickup truck, but I may not drive it for two weeks.”

Significant health problems add to his despair but are not as problematic as the job issues, says the father of four grown children and two adopted sons. Increasing costs and stagnant pay worsen his lifelong battle with depression. “The truck driver has no way of demanding or getting a better wage,” Billman says.

Hunter, head of Truckstop Ministries, says he understands those financial pressures.

“They’re depressed because of the economy – especially owner-operators,” he says. “The trucking industry is having problems, and it rocks back to the little man or little woman. It goes down to the company driver. Loads are fewer and farther apart. There’s a lot more sitting.”

It can be a vicious circle, Hunter says. “Dispatch says, ‘We have a hot load,’ and the driver is running out of hours. But if he has an accident, he can be out of a job. If he turns it down, he can lose favoritism.”

A third of respondents to Overdrive‘s reader survey believe that truckers are more depressed than people in other occupations.

Separation from family is the biggest cause of depression Hunter sees and also one of the top two factors in depression cited by respondents to the Overdrive survey. “They want to provide well, and the only way to do that is to run a lot of miles,” Hunter says. More miles means more time away from home. “Loneliness leads to depression.”

Owner-operator Tony Konieska says he was depressed last spring when he did not get enough time home with his family. “I didn’t want to get out of bed,” the Minnesota resident says. “Loads I would normally take, I didn’t want to bother with, such as partials. I got more irritable at traffic. I lacked energy, enthusiasm.”

Negative interaction with others and career limitations can sour your attitude, says Konieska, a trucker since 1976. “I can deal with the bad food, but I have to watch out for somebody hitting my truck or somebody trying to rob me or to break into my truck when I come out of a truck stop,” Konieska says. “Everything spirals. Most people move up in their jobs, they’re progressing, but in truck driving you can’t. You get more cynical when you get older.”

Michelle Gann of Mississippi drives team with her husband, Marcus, during the summer and works part time for his carrier, T.E.M. Transport, while her son is in school. She says she and her husband have suffered depression, though improved communication between them has helped the problem.

Michelle Gann’s depression has manifested itself as sleep problems. The illness often takes a form other than sadness, such as sleeplessness or sleepiness, anger, road rage or withdrawal, says Rodney Lowman of the California School of Professional Psychology, an authority on occupational mental health. “People who are in jobs like truck driving have some susceptibility to depression by being away from family for long periods of time, and not having the normal support networks,” Lowman says.

Owner-operator Tony Sellars covers his depression by staying busy and joking when home in Kentucky with his wife and two school-aged children. “My wife says I’m never serious,” Sellars says. “I try not to let her know, because if I get down, then she’s going to get down.”

Americans have difficulty accepting they are depressed, says psychologist Karen Shanor. “In this culture, saying ‘I am depressed’ is saying ‘I am out of control,’ especially for traditional males,” Shanor says. “They feel they have to present themselves as strong and capable. Truckers are mobile and reticent to go into any kind of therapy.”

More men resist help than women, Hunter says. “That’s the biggest problem – getting them to say ‘I need help.’” Some truckers reach out only as their last resort, says Hunter, who gets a suicidal caller almost every month.

Hallmarks of depression include ongoing feelings of sadness and hopelessness, not enjoying what you used to enjoy, Shanor says. Other symptoms include confusion; changes in appetite, sex drive or sleep habits; and increased use of substances such as alcohol or cigarettes.

“Some people drink or abuse drugs because they are depressed, and some are depressed because they drink or use drugs,” says Boston psychiatrist William Appleton. “In either case, the depression itself needs treatment.”

Sellars, who leases to T.M.T., notices changes in his eating habits. “When I start getting depressed, I eat a lot, even though I’m not really big,” he says. “I’ll eat until I’m miserable.”

He says after 28 years as a trucker, he sees depression as the accumulation of smaller stressors. “You worry about bills at home; you worry about the family and if you’ll have enough money if the truck breaks down,” Sellars says. “When I leave home, I don’t know if I’ll be back. You see all these wrecks, and you have close calls. It builds into sadness.”

Extended stress takes a heavy toll, says Robert Epstein, executive editor of Psychology Today. “Excessive and prolonged stress weakens our immune system, increases our risk of heart disease and cancer, impairs our mood and performance, disturbs our sleep, contributes to sexual dysfunction, destroys relationships, and generally makes us miserable.”

“Today’s stresses are mostly mental or emotional, yet they cause the same physiological reactions that physical challenges do,” says neuropsychologist Preston. “People who are frequently stressed are overexposed to the potent hormones and chemicals that put the body on alert. Eventually, these substances can damage the body.”

“Depression is the extreme end of stress,” says psychologist Nancy Frasure-Smith of McGill University in Montreal. “When a person is already vulnerable, for whatever reason, stress is that proverbial final straw.”

Hard work can be stressful, but the work itself may not be the only job-related source of stress. “The feeling of lack of control over conditions that affect you is the worst stressor of all,” says psychiatrist Lauren Marrengel of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Again, truckers are particularly at risk because a good bit of their life is dictated by others. For example, dock time – waiting, loading and unloading – is largely unpredictable and unpaid, determined by neither the trucker nor his carrier, and excessive (35 hours a week for dry van haulers, according to the Truckload Carriers Association). The variable schedules required by some carriers leave truckers little say in scheduling time off.

“Some may feel the control is outside themselves, and that tends to make you passive,” says Patrick Doyle, executive director of the Eagan Council Clinic in Eagan, Minn. For example, when a long-haul trucker’s wife is the primary decision-maker in the home, this can make the trucker feel he has little say in his own household. Early studies of fishing villages, Doyle says, show there was usually conflict when the men returned home from long fishing trips.

The loss of control becomes apparent in the way some truckers’ anger spills over.

“Listen to the CB,” Konieska says. “Their attitude toward each other is bad; the language is vulgar. They can’t vent at the shipper or receiver, so they vent against someone who has no outcome on their livelihood. You see guys pulling over and fighting.”

The good news is that there can be a route to recovery. “Before I developed depression, I had always loved driving a truck,” says Nizer, the trucker who began sleeping excessively. “By the time I was diagnosed, I hated it. I didn’t want to go to work. I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I did only because of economic necessity. But now my old self is back. I love what I do maybe even more than I remembered.”

For Desmarais, the road to stability has included quitting drinking. He says it’s hard to take steps to get better when you feel so bad, but it’s worth it. “It’s amazing the changes that came up,” Desmarais says. “It’s like breathing freely after suffering from asthma all your life. It takes the darkness out of living.”

Charles Cox contributed to the depression stories.

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