Pilot mental health is back in the news again. Or at least it was yesterday. Briefly. For the cursory reader there were images served up of the appalling a sad GermanWings case. Resurrecting the deep horror and sadness of that event was unavoidable. Telegraph Article
Unwritten was the sense that pilots are unlike other human beings; that in some way pilots should be immune or hardened to the effects of life or emotions. Neutral robots. Operatives.
Guess what? That is not the case at all. True, the flying environment requires a pilot to be situationally in control of their emotional response. This is trained in to a pilot as we progress through our learning and development. After that the years and long hours in the cockpit as well as sharing experience through reading or down-route banter fashion and shape the immediate response to unexpected or unwelcome events. Pilots become at home in that environment. They relish the challenge.
Pilots like control. Neatness. In mess they tend to rescue the order. They like to be fixers and menders. This is often reflected in hobbies, in personal achievement and often in the company that they keep. I’m no psychiatrist. I’m far from an expert, but it seems fairly natural that when, between all of the control and neatness, an unravelling occurs, then a helping hand might be needed. For all the achievement, many pilots lack the skills and experience to mend themselves effectively.
Let’s take the case of a person well known to me. A high achiever, a doer-of-things a
fixer-of-problems. By his own admission not good with work/life balance but happy and striving to make a difference in a tricky role alongside his pilot job. The toppling started as his relationship broke down; he felt the pressures mounting. Unseen, unfamiliar and unwanted.
He used his decision-making skills gathered through years of flying to assess the situation: What was still functioning? What skills did he have to formulate a sensible approach to the problem. He stepped outside of the whirl and turmoil to solve the issue. It wasn’t easy to do; especially the sense that he was admitting failure.
He sought help from his aviation doctor at work, his employer and from close friends. He removed himself from flying and found the assistance that he needed. It was a tough time but in the grand scheme of life events it was not altogether unusual. His employer and friends were supportive and in time he was being set back on the right path and getting the help he needed.
Then came the brush with the regulator. Medical removed. He was treated as a risk to the travelling public and thrown into uncertainty through blank bureaucracy. For the first time he felt truly lost. Treated as a risk with no obvious pathway back to his livelihood and the job that he loved and excelled at.
He was lucky. He worked for an excellent company with the resources and credibility to help influence the matter positively. Many other pilots do not have the same luxury: they work for organisations in parlous financial circumstances, or they fear personal vilification for becoming a problem. And what of those pilots employed on ever more exotic contracts? The industry has skittered over these difficult questions as it clamours to remain competitive.
You may have a view that it is better to ‘play it safe’ than to allow someone with any form of depression into a cockpit. That it is better to have a draconian regulator with zero tolerance view on the matter. All valid, of course. But this experience will do nothing to encourage other pilots to report depression.
The report is complex and appears well researched (Pilot Depression Study) although I would like to see a comparative illustration of how pilots fare against the general population. There are worrying indicators in the report regarding female pilots who appear overrepresented in the data. This causes me concern that the industry is still wildly missing the mark for making this a place for all talented aviators regardless of sex or orientation.
The problem now is that the community and employers are already way ahead of the regulator. The authorities are discharging their duty to protect the travelling public by setting their horizon on the word ‘depression’ and by having an absolute position on the mere mention of the word. By failing to take into account the patient regulatory bodies will be forever blind to the subtleties, the solutions and the true scale of this very human issue.