How my commute ruined my mental health, and why it may be ruining yours

By: Alexa Battler

I remember the first time I fainted on the subway. I was squeezed against so many people on Toronto’s notoriously crowded Line 1 that I didn’t even fall down, and no one could tell that I needed help.

I was a student in downtown Toronto with an anxiety disorder, which meant my life was organized around rush hour. I often had classes beginning around 9 a.m. and ending around 5 p.m., which meant I had a 12-hour day. I could only make my hour-long commute before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

I was constantly late for dinner, missed spending time with my family and lost hours every day just watching the time go by. When I got home, often at about 8 p.m., I had no time or energy to do anything except crawl into bed, only to wake up at 6 a.m. the next day.

The hardest part was seeing my friends and classmates leave school together. I watched them chatting and bonding as they wedged into buses to the subway, often unable to even cram themselves past the yellow safety line. For me, it wasn’t the wasted time or exhausting days that made commuting so difficult. It was this constant reminder that I was different. As I watched my classmates leave, an awful thought always nagged in my mind, that I wasn’t just different

I was broken.

This is one of the more complex impacts my commute had on my life. But there are several ways commuting influences health, and quality of life, among people with and without diagnosed mental illnesses.

At the heart of the issue is that commuting causes stress, whether from lateness, frustration, discomfort or unhappiness. Commuting breeds a terrible kind of stress, one that persists in lengthy periods of time, twice every day, and takes its toll on the mind and body.

Last year, CityNews spoke to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on the serious mental and physical impacts that can result from commuting. Physically, commuting can lead to cardiovascular stress, worsen quality of sleep and lower how overall satisfied we are with our lives.

The impacts of commuting extend beyond the time we step in or out of a vehicle. Once arriving at work, commuting can lower productivity, make it harder to focus or meet deadlines and cause employees to be more hostile to their coworkers.

In fact, a recent study found adding 20 minutes to a daily commute made people as unhappy in their jobs as a 19 percent pay cut. Similarly, negative impacts follow through commutes home and bleed into our personal lives. In every extra minute added to a commute, you’re not only unhappier at your job, you’ll also be unhappier at home.

Even as I searched for studies on the proven impact of commuting on mental health, Google pulled up an oddly chilling phrase:

“People also search for: my commute is ruining my life.”

In the CityNews article, doctors from CAMH proposed some solutions to lessen the harms of commuting. These were almost as disheartening as the impacts themselves. The doctors recommended moving closer to your workplace or finding an employer that will adjust your hours to let you travel at different times. Obviously, these are not quick nor possible fixes for a lot of people.

Not only does commuting have a severe impact on those with mental illnesses, it can also raise the likelihood of experiencing a mental illness, particularly depression. A 2017 study across the UK compared workers that commuted for less than half an hour with those that commuted for an hour or more every day. Those with longer commutes were 33 percent more likely to experience depression.

Speaking from personal experience, commuting negatively impacts depression in the same way insomnia does. When you experience constant negative, self-hating or even suicidal thoughts, it is difficult, and sometimes dangerous, to experience regular, long periods of time when you have nothing to do but think.

Music can help, playing on your phone, reading or otherwise distracting yourself can help. But when packed into public transit, with crowds of people pressing your own arms against you, or stuck, alone, in traffic, these are often luxuries that cannot be reached.

About six months ago, I moved from downtown Toronto to the suburbs as I graduated school and entered the workforce. My commute is now a 20-minute drive — I’m extremely lucky that I can take side streets and miss traffic both ways. And I feel better. I walk with my coworkers to the parking lot after work. I have my own seat, my own space, every time.

I know this isn’t the reality for a lot of commuters. According to Statistics Canada, that will not change in the near future. In 2016, the average commuting time was about 24 minutes by car and 45 minutes by public transit. The amount of people and time spent commuting continues to rise, alongside the amount of people commuting into city centers.

Commuting is a lot like money — when you have no problem with it, it rarely comes to mind, and when you do, it is all-consuming. I know there are many people out there whose lives are dictated by rush hour, who are made sadder, angrier and more depressed by their commute.

I can’t say with any confidence what we should be doing about commuting, but I can say with the utmost certainty that we deserve better.