Treating trucker trauma
MONTREAL, Que. — A man threw himself in front of Patrick Forgues’ truck in a case of “suicide by truck,” in 2013. While fighting his own demons, he and his partner Kareen Lapointe have been working to make help available for other truckers suffering psychological injury after severe accidents or suicides by truck.
Mainstream awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in soldiers has increased in recent years, but who would have thought that truckers might suffer PTSD as well? Yet in the aftermath of his incident, Forgues suffered classic PTSD symptoms. But accepting that fact was simply not part of trucker culture.
“I was told that I had PTSD, but in my head, that only happened to soldiers, and I hadn’t fought in a war,” Forgues says. He says he had no idea that the incident could have repercussions in his work and personal life. He did spend the night of the accident in the hospital, in psychiatric emergency, and began seeing a psychologist after a month, but it wasn’t enough.
“The help wasn’t useful for going back to work, and it should have been adapted with my girlfriend in order to have a teamwork dynamic with the person who was by my side each day while I was in denial,” Forgues says.
Instead, he remained in denial of his emotions for the first year, said that he was fine and that he could soon resume trucking.
“I didn’t want to look reality in the face. I began drinking and self-medicating, thinking that I was getting better,” Forgues adds.
Typical symptoms of PTSD include repeated nightmares, flashbacks, fatigue, emotional emptiness, dark thoughts, and anxiety. For truckers, they can also include the inability to resume work, substance abuse, compulsive behavior, social isolation, and frequent hospitalization. Adding insult to injury, family members may be unable to comprehend what is happening, and marriages may break up.
“I suffered a lot of disassociation, that is, I drove my truck on auto-pilot. There were whole work days I could not remember. I had a lot of panic attacks when I found myself with pedestrians around my truck. I lost 50 pounds in three months,” Forgues says.
Forgues did get help from the Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (CNESST). (Unofficially, this means roughly “Commission of norms, equality, health and work safety”). Even today his file is still followed by a specialized educator, clinical psychologist and a psychiatrist. However, he notes, “This is not the case for the majority of truckers.”
The mentality in the industry is that the trucker must get back on the road as soon as possible, to avoid remaining traumatized. Forgues and Lapointe have a different point of view.
For example, Forgues says, “We want it made obligatory to have three follow-up meetings with a psychologist in the first month after an accident, to ensure that the trucker is ready to resume driving.”
In February 2016 Forgues and Lapointe created a website called SSPT chez les camionneurs (unofficially translated as “PTSD Among Truckers”). Among other things, the website invites truckers and their spouses to share their experiences. “A lot of truckers have told us their stories,” Forgues says.
A year later the couple founded a non-profit organization, with the goal of coming to the aid of truckers with PTSD following a suicide by truck or other traumatic events.
The couple have made much progress in having PTSD recognized as the psychological injury that it is for truckers, and in improving the care they receive. For example, SSPT chez les camionneurs, with the help of a mental health professional, created a special protocol adapted for highway professionals – an established procedure or process that afflicted truckers should follow in the aftermath of a serious incident.
“We want to standardize the help so the follow-up is identical for everyone,” Forgues explains.
The protocol includes a first meeting with a mental health professional 24 to 48 hours after an accident so the trucker can ventilate and express his or her emotions. A second meeting, one week later, is to give the driver information and other help. A third meeting a month after the accident is intended to establish whether the driver needs more help.
“You can’t give a diagnosis of PTSD until a month has passed,” Forgues says.
“We have more than 15 educators specialized in PTSD in contact with us for truckers asking for help, but the protocol is applied only if the employer decides. Nothing is obligatory for them; however, it is enormously beneficial to help one’s employee at the beginning of the process,” Forgues says.
Forgues and Lapointe also want to set up a buddy system, where truckers are there to listen to other truckers.
“We know from experience that truckers find it easier to ask for help from a colleague. This is why we would like to train drivers in order to help us recognize truckers who are not doing so well, and so guide them toward good resources,” Forgues says.
The couple also followed the progress of Bill C-211, an Act respecting a federal framework on post-traumatic stress disorder, and requested that truckers be included with first responders, firemen, military personnel, correctional officers and members of the RCMP, who were specifically mentioned in the bill.
That didn’t happen, but the couple do want to participate in the fleshing out of the bill, which was adopted June 16. In the meantime, they are spreading the word, and support is growing for the mission.
“PTSD is not a sickness that you develop. It is a psychological injury caused by a traumatic occurrence,” Forgues emphasizes. “The benefit of making contact with us is to have a good path to follow, good interveners, in order to have optimal treatment at the beginning of the process, and so, hopefully a rapid return to work. We have a mission to educate employers and the family as well, because PTSD is a team affair.”
For more on the work of Patrick Forgues and Kareen Lapointe, visit www.ssptchezlescamionneurs.wordpress.com.
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