Inside help: Fellow truckers offer comfort, resources to help prevent suicide

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Updated Sep 30, 2018
One contributor to depression is isolation, an all-too-common reality for over-the-road truckers.One contributor to depression is isolation, an all-too-common reality for over-the-road truckers.

It was early morning on April 24 when police received a call about a suicidal man threatening to jump off an I-696 overpass in Coolidge, Michigan.

First responders activated a plan they have used in similar cases: flagging down tractor-trailers and staging them under the bridge to break any potential fall. Thirteen rigs lined up until the situation was safely diffused a few hours later.

The Michigan State Police Metro Detroit office released a reporter’s photo of the truck wall along with the National Suicide Prevention hotline number. The photo of the truck alignment, an approach not widely known, went viral, and the truckers received praise for their efforts.

In a less visible but more hands-on application, a growing number of truckers are helping distressed drivers by sharing their own experiences and encouraging those in crisis to hang on and get help.

There’s no shortage of need for such help. In more than half of states, suicide rates increased more than 30 percent from 1999 to 2016, when nearly 45,000 lives were lost, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

“Don’t let someone else’s negativity or anger or stupidity rule what happens in your life,” advises owner-operator Chris Kirkland.“Don’t let someone else’s negativity or anger or stupidity rule what happens in your life,” advises owner-operator Chris Kirkland.

Owner-operator Chris Kirkland is one of many truckers who have struggled with depression. Along with his wife’s support, a prescription for Wellbutrin has helped him.

“Once I got on the medication, it was like the fog began to lift,” says Kirkland, of Waynesboro, Tennessee.

His over-the-road schedule makes it tough to meet regularly with his therapist, although he tries. “Truckers, by nature, are loners,” he says. “Then you add the negative stereotypes and stigmas attached to trucking, and it just adds to the despair. My truck is not even welcome at RV resorts, and that hurts.”

Kirkland’s message to truckers having suicidal thoughts, as he did, is this: “Suicide is irreversible. You can’t come back from that. Don’t let someone else’s negativity or anger or stupidity rule what happens in your life.”

As Kirkland notes, truckers’ tendency to be loners is one factor that pushes some toward suicide, but it’s hardly the only destabilizing aspect of the profession. Long-haul trucking, more than in most occupations, also sees a big share of relationship issues, physical health problems, substance abuse and other stresses related to job, money and legal issues.

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Additionally, truckers at risk for suicide often face obstacles that others don’t in getting help. Tending to be proud and self-reliant, many truckers resist seeking counseling or medical help of any kind. A 2012 study in Mental Health Nursing Journal found that nearly 27 percent of truck drivers reported experiencing depression, while only 5 percent sought medical or psychological help.

Even when truckers are willing to get help, long-haul schedules often make it difficult to schedule appointments with doctors and counselors.

Long stretches over the road are isolating, increasing loneliness and weakening the family and friend connections critical to mental health. Those taking certain medications, as well as those who’ve made suicide attempts, also can face regulatory compliance issues.

As national suicide statistics rise and awareness increases with high-profile suicides such as Robin Williams and Anthony Bourdain, there’s a sense of urgency to connect those at risk with suicide prevention and treatment resources. Highlighting that urgency is the awareness that more than half of suicide victims did not have a known mental health condition.

The CDC says the most effective suicide prevention is for the at-risk person to be part of a functioning emergency help for suicidal thoughtscommunity. That’s why Michael Suson started an online support group for truckers battling depression and suicidal thoughts.

Suson was a driver for Springfield, Missouri-based Steelman Transportation when fellow Steelman driver Tim Spencer posted a farewell message on Facebook and then shot himself inside his rig. Shortly after that, another driver friend of Suson’s hanged himself. These losses led Suson and others to start a Facebook support group, Truckers for Truckers, in 2016.

The private group has 3,500 members, some of them volunteer administrators and moderators. While Suson has stepped back from leadership due to health issues, others ensure the group stays focused on its mission to offer support and information for those struggling with suicidal thoughts and depression.

Melissa Hatfield of Springfield, now senior administrator, helped Suson launch the group. She rides with her boyfriend, Nick Como, who is leased to Steelman. Hatfield says one aspect of Spencer’s suicide that haunts those who knew him was the hints he’d dropped, which now are clear in retrospect. One message – “If I died today, would you miss me?” – hits particularly hard.

“Just the presence of people [in the Facebook group] who care and have been through tough times seemed to help many who came seeking help,” Hatfield says. Some suicides have been averted, she says. “You never know when even a kind word to someone who is in a dark place can make the difference between life and death.”

Truckers who need more professional, individual attention but have difficulty scheduling office visits can find remote treatment sometimes. Buck Black, a licensed therapist in Indiana, offers help to truckers on the road and their families, often via Skype. He says depression is one of the most common conditions he sees in trucking.

“Missing home, disagreements with loved ones, problems with dispatchers, isolation and general boredom are all common factors that can lead to depression,” Black says. The struggle is compounded by the lack of time and resources for therapy and regular health care.

He recommends truckers struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts to keep in touch with family and friends and to take advantage of supportive peers, such as those in Truckers for Truckers.

“Communication with the outside world is very important,” he says. “Remember, because you are a trucker, you are automatically involved in long-distance relationships. Keep focused on the positive, and seek out positive music, comedies or things that make you laugh or cheer you up.”

While Black can offer therapy only to clients who reside in his state, he does recommend and other online therapy services that don’t have that restriction.

Getting help can create anxiety and confusion when it comes to a diagnosis and medication that could affect driving eligibility. Mike Megehee, president of TeamCME, a network of clinics providing DOT physicals, says that diagnosis and medication are best worked out with a trucker’s primary care physician and, if necessary, a specialist.

There is a wide range of drugs that work well for depression and anxiety, some of which don’t interfere with the ability to operate a commercial motor vehicle. SSRI (selective seratonic reuptake inhibitors) meds, such as Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft, are commonly prescribed drugs for depression and anxiety, and most are deemed safe for driving.

In the case of a suicide attempt, federal regulations require one year off the road and documentation from health care providers that the individual is fit to return to commercial driving.

Helping someone at risk

Even with no training in social work, you still can play a key role in helping someone who appears to be at risk of suicide. Prevention experts recommend these approaches:

  • Ask the person to open up about any problems. Listen without judging.
  • Assess the risk of suicide or other dangerous behavior. Keep the person safe if they appear ready to take drastic measures.
  • Reassure the person that things can be turned around, and encourage them to get immediate help, such as through the suicide hotline.
  • Help them connect with an ongoing support group.
  • Follow up. Be available as time passes, even if it’s only remote contact by phone, text or email.

The second part of this feature, which looks at drivers’ efforts in helping other truckers going through rough times, can be found here: