In his hit Truck Union music videos, featuring gleaming rigs, beautiful women and fancy cars, Surjit Khan sings about an imaginary luxury life as a longhaul driver, a profession which has become a magnet for South Asians.
But beneath the facade of the glossy image portrayed by Khan lies a grim reality – a host of mental issues, triggered by an extremely stressful job.
The problem is exacerbated by the stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the community.
The Punjabi Community Health Services (PCHS) in Brampton, Ont., has been at the forefront of providing help to distressed South Asian truckers throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Brampton itself is home to thousands of drivers from the Indian state of Punjab.
Seven out of 10 calls the center receives are from truckers, many of them first-generation immigrants struggling to cope with the stress of their job.
After days on the road, some drivers turn to alcohol and drugs to relieve their stress, according to the center.
“Slowly some drivers just skip that fine line of taking alcohol for relaxation, and slip into addiction,” said Mudassara Anwar, supervisor of the Mental Health and Geriatrics Program at the center.
Anwar said the addiction then leads to domestic violence, family breakups and job losses, ultimately ending up in depression.
Then the stigma and shame of mental health sink in too, with patients refusing to seek counselling, she said.
When they finally decide to seek help, it would be too late, Anwar added.
She also said that many truckers “stress out’ over their inability to properly supervise their children.
“Their kids do not do good in school, or they get engaged in activities which are not good for them. They are basically not completing their education because there is no check.”
She said the typical South Asian trucker is “under social pressure, community pressure and in-law pressure”, all contributing factors of stress.
Anwar leads a team of several case managers and other support staff, who are trained to offer “culturally appropriate” advice to patients in their own languages such as Punjabi and Hindi.
The center offers a variety of free programs on mental health and addiction, and also works with other care partners in the community.
A common complaint among the truckers is that they feel isolated and not engaged enough in the society, said case manager Parneet Waraich.
“And then they also feel that people judge them for not being educated, and not being ‘classy enough’. So, they always have to go an extra mile to get themselves validated.”
One of the cases the center dealt with recently was that of a 36-year-old trucker who suffered concussion and other injuries in a collision.
Soon he was diagnosed with psychosis and schizophrenia.
With no money and no one to help, the patient lived on milk until the center got involved with the local food bank to deliver hot meals to him. The patient was later sent to a therapist for further treatment.
The center, under the leadership of founder and CEO Dr. Baldev Mutta, provides help to about 1,000 people each year.
Last summer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CMHA) in Toronto said that people of South Asian origin are 85% less likely to seek treatment for mental illness than those who identify as white.
To address the problem, CMHA is developing a culturally adapted form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy catered toward the community.
Dr. Farooq Naeem, chief of general and health systems psychiatry at CMHA, is leading the project, which he calls a type of “talking therapy”.
Funded by Health Canada and supported by a number of institutions including PCHS and the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Naeem’s team is gathering information to launch the program in the middle of this year.
He said the response to the announcement of the project in December was overwhelming with hundreds of people offering to participate.
“I think that means people are becoming more aware in the community, they are becoming more familiar, and they are realizing the need to get help for mental health problems,” Naeem told Road Today.
Enduring mental torment
The mental health of truck drivers is suddenly getting a lot more attention, an indication that the problem has worsened over the years.
Media campaigns, awareness workshops and new research are all part of fresh efforts to tackle a problem that afflicts thousands of truckers in North America.
In Canada, psychological disorders and mental health issues are said to be more prevalent in the trucking industry than in the general public.
That is not surprising, considering that the industry employs more than 300,000 drivers, most of whom work in a high-stress, sleep-deprived and obesogenic environment.
How did we get here?
Prof. Mona Shattell, associate dean for faculty development at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, has conducted extensive studies on the mental health of truckers.
She considers loneliness as one of the key factors triggering mental issues.
“Loneliness is a big problem in drivers who spend most of the hours of the day in isolation… As human beings, people need human-to-human interaction,” she said in an email to Road Today.
Shattell recalled that some truckers had told her that they were so desperate for companionship, they solicited sex workers just to talk, and not for sex.
She also attributed the poor mental health of truckers to low autonomy, low respect from members of society, low pay, long work hours and increasing pressures from companies and dispatchers.
Complicating the issues is some people’s refusal to seek medical help because of the hypermasculine image of a truck driver.
“Thus, seeking medical help, especially for mental health or emotional problems, is not seen as ‘manly’ or fitting of the image of the tough exterior of drivers,” Shattell said.
In Canada, more studies are underway on the issue.
At Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., researchers are trying to pinpoint the causes of truckers’ poor mental health.
“Risk factors for depression in truckers are currently poorly understood in the literature,” the university said last month in seeking participants for the project Risk Factors for Depression in Longhaul Truck Drivers: A Cross-sectional Study Design.
“This study will allow for us to better understand factors that may influence the risk of depression in truckers.”
The team is working with the Owner-Operator’s Business Association of Canada (OBAC).
“We need to have real conversations about mental health,” said Joanne Ritchie, executive director of OBAC.
“And we need better research that includes input from drivers themselves about what’s happening out on the road that impacts their health and well being.”
Trucking HR Canada has been holding workshops on mental health.
It has also released a guide, Gearing up for Workplace Mental Health, to support employers in addressing mental health issues among their staff.
“Addressing mental health within the workplace has become an important issue in the trucking and logistics industry,” said Craig Faucette, director of policy and programs at Trucking HR Canada.
“Unfortunately, despite an increase in awareness there still remains a stigma associated with mental health, which can result in many individuals not seeking the help they need.”
Separately, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety is offering a free awareness course to employers and frontline workers, which will help them gain a better understanding of why mental health in the workplace matters.
What can be done?
Shattell of John Hopkins said trucking companies need to offer more health and wellness programs to drivers.
She said clinics staffed with nurse practitioners (and/or physicians and nurses) should be co-located at trucking companies and truck stops to increase drivers’ access to care.
Shattell also thinks that in the U.S., federal laws need to change to cover truckers under the Department of Labor instead of the Department of Transportation, which would afford them better worker protections.
Punjabi Community Health Services – www.pchs4u.com
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health – www.camh.ca
Mental Health Commission of Canada – www.mentalhealthcommission.ca
Health Canada – www.canada.ca/en/health-canada.html
Special Report by Abdul Latheef