Veterans Day is approaching. It is an opportunity for us to honor and reflect on the sacrifices of the men and women who have served in the military. While we celebrate Veterans Day annually on November 11, our service to our nation’s heroes should not be limited to one single day. We can support our veterans by aiding in efforts to improve their lives and reduce their risk of suicide. According to the 2019 National Suicide Prevention Annual Report, there was an average of 17 veteran suicide deaths per day in 2017. Other research has shown an even higher number – 22 deaths per day due to suicide. That is almost one every hour, every day. This number has significantly increased since 2005 and highlights the need for improved access to mental health care in all aspects of veteran lives, including their work environment.
Veteran Suicide And The Transportation Industry
On average, the Census Bureau found in 2016 that one in every ten truck drivers were veterans. The trucking industry is one of the nation’s largest employers of veterans, and with the signing of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015, the federal government authorized over $305 billion between 2016 through 2020 for public transportation. Through the FAST Act, the federal government has also provided $1 million in grants to fund programs connecting veterans to commercial truck training and careers.
One may wonder why there is such an interest in hiring veterans into the trucking industry. That is because many veterans possess driving experience from the military and have the qualities needed to be safe professional drivers. While in the military, service members are taught logistics, adaptability, situational awareness, accountability, discipline, and endurance. This all translates well into the strenuous work of the trucking industry. Former military personnel are also taught the importance of teamwork and are accustomed to the integration of technology to assist their productivity and safety. Therefore, when considering the recruitment of new drivers, many trucking companies actively seek the talent of veteran drivers.
What Employers Can Do to Support Veterans
Equipped with the knowledge that many of their drivers are veterans, how can trucking companies support veteran suicide prevention efforts?
First, employers must recognize the inherent barriers and risk factors that contribute to the mental health issues of their professional drivers and their families. Research has shown that many drivers are at increased risk for mental health problems due to the challenging work environment of the trucking industry. Undoubtably, this contributes to what the industry views as its main and very expensive challenge – recruiting and retaining safe and healthy drivers.
Professional drivers in the best of times experience long driving shifts, disrupted sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, social isolation, poor nutrition, delivery urgency and delivery delays, dangerous weather, traumatic incidents on the road, personal safety concerns, and poor access to medical care. These conditions create a condition of chronic stress with its many negative physical and mental health consequences. (Notice I said best of times – the situation is even more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic.) Further, drivers with undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions may consequently engage in alcohol or other drug misuse to self-medicate. The use of alcohol and drugs can increase a driver’s risk of injury and accidents, which can endanger the traveling public and create financial strain to the trucking company. Drivers that have untreated depression can also be costly to employers, as depression leads to increased work absences, reduced productivity, and increased disability. The Veteran’s Health Administration has compiled research on veterans with depressive conditions in the work environment and found a consistent and measurable decrease in productivity in comparison to healthier workers.
Depressive conditions can lead to suicidal ideations and behaviors. In fact, it is believed that most people who die from suicide have some type of depressive disorder-often untreated. Thus, it is imperative that employers of professional drivers take note and encourage their team to engage in mental health screenings, education, and care. When employees in need also are involved in therapy, they can learn to identify maladaptive patterns of thinking, improve time management skills, engage in work routines that foster collaboration versus isolation, and re-arrange their work spaces and routines to aid in reducing depressive symptoms.
Second, consider what your organization is actively doing today to support veterans’ mental health and wellbeing and what it should be doing tomorrow. Does your organization offer a screening for suicide or other behavioral health conditions? Does the screening identify employees in need early on and help them get professional and sometimes life-saving assistance? Have you visited with your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) lately to review its engagement and services? Does your workplace culture and communications promote awareness of issues like suicide prevention and de-stigmatizing mental health services?
Whether you are a leader in the transportation industry or some other, when you think of honoring America’s veterans in November, please think about what your organization can do to support their wellbeing and the prevention of veteran suicide of 22 deaths per day.
About the Authors
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
Unwanaobong “Wana” Udoko is a graduate intern at Espyr. She is a first-year student in the Master of Science in Social Work program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She also works at the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a counselor on the National Veterans’ Suicide Prevention hotline.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.