Depression has existed in the road freight transport industry for decades, according to University of Technology Sydney (UTS) PhD student Taryn Chalmers.

Taryn’s large scale study of truck drivers’ mood disorders suggests that not only is depression a major issue but mental health issues in the industry are being neglected.

Her original honours research forms the basis for the PhD, from which she hopes tools can be developed to manage acute psychological conditions before they become chronic.

Associate Professor Sara Lal of the UTS Neuroscience Research Unit, School of Medical and Molecular Biosciences, is supervising the 25-year-old’s unique research project.

Only one previous study has ever been conducted into the prevalence of depression in the transport industry, but it did not assess depression effects on the driver’s physiological health.

“Depression has been proven to significantly reduce driving performance, factors such as reaction time, and steering ability,” Taryn said.

“And when you have an entire industry based on someone’s ability to operate a large vehicle, it’s worrying that we haven’t found ways to rectify or at least manage depression within this industry.”

Now digging deeper into the impact of depression on cardiovascular health in truck drivers, Taryn said truck drivers faced unique working conditions.

“Monotonous driving, intermittent work and rest cycles, as well as unhealthy food options and workplace isolation,” she said.

“It’s also a male-dominated industry, around 97.4 per cent, who find themselves in this depression-vulnerable workforce.”

Due to a multitude of reasons, including the social stigma of mood disorders, it was possible the average truck driver could suffer from depression for 30 years without being diagnosed, a condition that could eventually contribute to the development of heart-related disease.

“Recent statistics show that younger males are actually more susceptible to mood disorders than older males. Now that’s extremely concerning when you have a workforce that’s being flooded with new employees,” she said.

“So you’ve not only got depression potentially reducing their driving ability, but older individuals at risk of suffering heart attacks at the wheel. And it’s not just the drivers who are at danger; it’s also people in cars and pedestrians.

“I honestly think that it’s a really significant community safety problem, right across Australia.

“Depression appears to be an inherent part of this male-dominated industry and there’s really nothing much you can do about that.

“But if we can find a way to manage these conditions, it will mean not only helping them short term so they’re not experiencing the symptoms of depression, but that their cardiovascular health later down the line will be significantly improved.”

A key strategy would be to increase awareness among workers about the problems of depression and anxiousness in their industry and to encourage dialogue among peers and supervisors.

“Awareness is so important for the drivers,” she said.

“But I’m afraid that at the moment, ignorance appears to be the truck industry’s own worst enemy.”

For more information about improving the health of Australia’s truck drivers, see Heads up.

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