Landmark research reveals ‘horrific’ mental health crisis facing Australian truck drivers
Gerard* was only in the trucking game for five years when he started to notice a change in himself.
Working 16-hour days, weighing 142 kilograms and in the grip of his second divorce, the truck driver said his mental health had never been so bad.
He said, “broken marriages, a shit life on the road and never being home for years on end”, led him to spiral.
When he attempted to talk through his struggles with colleagues, he was told to shut up and “grow some balls”.
“It’s a real manly, man industry. You can’t show your weaknesses,” he said.
Gerard works for one of Australia’s major transport companies but like many drivers, he chose to remain anonymous fearing he could lose his job for speaking out about his mental health.
“Do you know how many hours I spent crying in my f***ing truck? Like for years on end.
“Do you know how much I’ve missed out on my kids? I missed them growing up. I was never there.”
Truck drivers are the operational backbone of Australia — delivering essential supplies across enormous distances to often isolated locations.
But the sector is facing a crisis.
‘Impact larger than we ever anticipated’
Australia’s largest survey of truck drivers, led by Monash University, found half of all truckies suffered psychological distress.
The landmark three-year Driving Health research began in 2018 and will run over three stages, concluding in 2021.
The study found the percentage of drivers aged under 35 suffering severe distress was almost double that of the average Australian male of the same age.
It also found suicide had fast become the second leading cause of death for truck drivers under the age of 39.
Truck driving can be a dangerous occupation, with drivers 13 times more likely to die at work than any other Australian worker, according to Driving Health.
The number of drivers dying on Australian roads has also spiked after a report by the National Transport Insurance company found driver fatalities had more than doubled last year.
An exodus of drivers, fed up with long hours and stagnating wages, has resulted in a nation-wide shortage.
Those that remain report feeling undervalued and disrespected by employers, fellow motorists, the government and society.
“People don’t get what we f***ing do for them. Without trucks we’re screwed. They just use it and think as long as it’s there tomorrow — we don’t get that appreciation,” Gerard said.
Truck driving is the most common occupation for male Australians, employing 1 in every 33 male workers, or approximately 200,000 drivers.
“[Men] don’t talk about their inner feelings, don’t talk about their anguishes or what’s going through their minds, especially with their work mates because it’s just unheard of and I find that really sad,” Gerard said.
“I know three or four different people who took their own lives, guys I’ve worked with … because the industry as a whole put such pressure on them.”
Research fellow Elizabeth Prichard interviewed drivers and their families across Australia and found the team were only just beginning to scratch the surface on the “huge” stresses facing those behind the wheel.
“The impact of this industry on drivers is larger than we ever anticipated,” Dr Prichard said.
She said the profession projected a “tough or macho image” of drivers who “get on and get it done”, leaving many feeling unable to openly voice their struggles.
“Some fear if they talk about having challenges around mental health and wellbeing that they will be seen as being unable to do their job and will lose their job,” Dr Prichard said.
“Many of them are actually fearful of keeping their jobs and being employable in the future if they happen to talk about their mental health or put a claim in.”
‘Nobody sees you’
Ian Vitnell drives a 19-metre-long tilt-tray tow truck from Melbourne to Newcastle and up to Brisbane — he’s often away for four days at a time.
The former coal miner has struggled with severe depression that led to his attempted suicide.
His physical health has suffered too.
“I’ve got blocked up arteries in both my legs to the point where the right leg didn’t have a pulse in the bottom of it,” he said.
But he said nothing compared to the loneliness he felt on the road.
“Drivers are tough cookies. One, you don’t cry and the other is you don’t admit to having something wrong — that’s for sure,” Mr Vitnell said.
“Personal interaction with other people every day [is missing]. Your work crew would normally notice something wrong with you if you were going downhill, but if you’re in a truck nobody sees you.”
He said uncertain working hours contributed to the breakdown in his previous marriage and has continued to put stress on his current marriage.
“Not only am I unreliable [because of working hours], she gets worried about fidelity. She worries I’m off seeing a girl or something,” Mr Vitnell said.
His wife, Lek Prakopsri, knows how lonely he can get on the road.
“Many times I’m thinking about it — that he will go to work and not come home.
“I have only him here, I don’t have other people. I have Thai friends but it’s not the same… they don’t understand me. They don’t know how I feel.
“I’m lonely at home but not like him — he’s far away from home, lonely on his own with nobody. If he has an accident he has nobody there to help.”
‘I may as well be a single parent’
Dr Prichard said marriage breakdown, dislocation from family life and fears of infidelity were common among drivers and their partners.
“Most drivers are on their second or third relationship because previous spouses have said, ‘I may as well be a single parent’,” she said.
“They’re doing their job and trying to provide for their families and they’re doing that often in the middle of the night, for 14 to 16 hours a day, at huge costs to themselves, their sleep, their relationships and their health.”
Dr Prichard said many described the work of a truckie as a thankless job, with one saying drivers were like “bottom feeders” in Australia.
“If we don’t have truck drivers, we don’t have an economy. They’re vitally, vitally important to keep the nation going,” she said.
“Everything we eat, drink, wear, has all come from a truck, so the implication as to how we see drivers is huge.”
Michael Kaine, National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, said he had heard similar anecdotal “horror stories” for decades.
“We kept having to meet with widows of people who had either taken their own lives or been killed in truck accidents,” Mr Kaine said.
“What we’re seeing is the terrible consequences of these [workplace] pressures. This is an industry that is racked.”
Mr Kaine also oversees insurance claims made by some 100,000 transport workers to their superannuation fund.
“There are between three and six suicide claims every month — a horrific number,” he said.
“If this was happening in parliament or the armed forces, there would be community outrage, the problem is people have gotten used to people’s death being marked by road statistics.”
Mr Kaine called for a body to be established that had the power to intervene and set standards which removed time pressures on the supply chain.
Lachlan Benson, interim CEO of the Healthy Heads in Trucks and Sheds Foundation, insists industry heads are leading the charge on turning health outcomes around.
His organisation hoped to launch an app to help drivers make healthier choices, as well as train rest stop attendants in mental health first aid.
“This is about the whole industry stepping up and saying we’ve got a major problem and we need to address this,” Mr Benson said.
“The economic reality is we won’t actually have people to drive our trucks or to work in our warehouses if we don’t take care of them.”
Dr Prichard said the survival of the industry and its drivers depended on company heads listening to drivers.
As for Gerard, he said those behind the wheel were crying out for meaningful change.
“Support from the industry. Support from the companies they work for. Support from governments and support from the general public — a simple nice gesture goes a hell of a long way,” he said.
*Names have been changed to protect identity