Turbulent Minds: Mental health stigma facing pilots echoes crisis among men

In late October, news broke that Alaska-bound flight 2059 had to make an emergency diversion in Portland en route to San Francisco after an off-duty pilot attempted to “disrupt the engine.”

Identified as Joseph Emerson, news later emerged that he had been overpowered by the flight crew and taken into custody. Today he faces 83 counts of attempted murder – one for each passenger and crew member on the ship. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Emerson revealed a portrait of a man who made a “big mistake” in the midst of a mental health crisis.

According to the report, he was still suffering from the effects of a nightmarish psychedelic trip caused by the psilocybin mushrooms he consumed 48 hours earlier, which left him feeling “trapped in a dream.” He took psychoactive mushrooms on a trip with friends to mark the death of his best friend – a loss that plunged him into a deep state of grief and forced him to confront long-standing mental health issues. In the report, Emerson says his therapist commented that he was probably suffering from depression, but the therapist was unable to diagnose him. He was told to consider getting an official diagnosis from a doctor and maybe take anti-depressants. The only problem was that he was afraid it could threaten his family’s livelihood and career.

As details of what happened to Emerson on the flight emerged, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on November 9 that it was establishing a commission “to provide recommendations to break down barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues to the agency.” The FAA can disqualify pilots with depression or taking certain prescription treatments from flying. In 2010, the agency approved certain antidepressants for use in those with mild or moderate depression. But it comes with a follow-up period that can last for years.

“This avoidance can have serious consequences, as it can lead to reported health problems that could affect pilot performance — and in our business, it affects safety.”

In August, the Washington Post reported that federal authorities were investigating 5,000 pilots who allegedly falsified their medical records to hide benefits they were earning for health problems that could affect their ability to fly. In 2016, an anonymous study published in Environmental Health found that hundreds of commercial airline pilots could be clinically depressed and still fly. A recent study found that many pilots avoid medical professionals for fear that disclosing health problems could cause them to lose their medical clearance to fly.

Captain Reine O’Shaughnessy, co-founder and CEO of Piloting 2 Wellbeing, told Salon that this fear often stems from “tighter regulations” in the aviation industry.

“And the perception that health issues can compromise their ability to fly, and in some cases it does,” she said. “The significance of this is that this avoidance can have serious consequences, as it can lead to reported health problems that could affect pilot performance — and in our business performance, it affects safety.”

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Indeed, Emerson is far from the first pilot to have a public meltdown. In 2012, passengers on a JetBlue flight had to stop the pilot from experiencing a “freaky mid-air malfunction,” as the New York Times put it. In July, a United Airlines pilot took down a parking barrier at the Denver airport with an axe. He told police he had “reached his breaking point”. In 2015, a Germanwings pilot deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

O’Shaughnessy said the industry is making progress in terms of encouraging more transparency. Before 2010, if a pilot discovered they had depression or anxiety, they wouldn’t fly.

“Now, the paradox is that we have this system where we have to self-report if we’re struggling with depression or anxiety,” she said. “But the paradox is, why would pilots report it if it affects their life?”

“Mental health and mental well-being should be a shared responsibility, and that means involving all stakeholders in this aviation industry.”

The FAA claims that 0.1% of medical certificate applicants who disclose health problems are denied, trying to encourage more pilots to come forward. However, not everyone who discloses and goes through the monitoring period of sick days is able to implement them. In addition, there is a fear of what others might think.

O’Shaughnessy said a “culture change” is one part of the solution, in addition to prioritizing mental fitness in pilot training and addressing the demanding lifestyle required of pilots, which can include sleepless nights and not getting a hot meal to work.

“What I’m seeing is that companies are basically just checking boxes,” she said. “Mental health and mental well-being should be a shared responsibility, and that means involving all stakeholders in this aviation industry.”

While it’s understandable that there is a required standard of mental health for pilots who are responsible for hundreds of lives every day, some mental health experts say this is another way systemic forces perpetuate the ongoing mental health crisis among men in America. And that the culture change that O’Shaughnessy mentioned could come from outside the aviation industry. In America, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression, but men are more likely to die by suicide. Nearly 80 percent of suicides are among men — most of whom are over 75 and who work in male-dominated industries such as construction and transportation.

Men are less inclined than women to seek treatment and help. Dr. Carla Manley, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Joy of Fear,” told Salon that a workplace culture where employees feel like they have to “camouflage” mental health issues for fear of repercussions can backfire.

“Given the widespread nature of certain ridiculous beliefs such as ‘real men are tough’ and ‘only weak people need psychological support’, those suffering from mental health problems are often afraid to seek the support they need,” she said. she. “In my clinical work, I’ve certainly noticed that men — even more so than women — are hesitant to disclose their mental health problems lest they be judged, ostracized, or worse.”

Erin Pash, LMFT, founder and CEO of Ellie Mental Health, said Salon society needs to rethink what it means to be “strong.”

“Men who rely on and accept support for their mental health think about strength differently,” she said. “Being ‘mentally strong’ means being able to push through complicated feelings and come out the other side smarter, more adaptable, and more engaged in your life.”

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