Aviation as a profession demands a lot from all of us. Being a pilot often means crazy financial situations to get qualified, long hours, working outside your normal circadian rhythm, being separated from loved ones, all while being one lingering health problem away from losing your entire career. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for great pilot mental health, does it?
In addition to this, mental health amongst pilots is still overlooked way too much, way too often, and has been consistently downplayed by both pilots themselves and employers.
Some troubling results were revealed in two recent studies on commercial airline pilots in 2016 and 2017. These studies looked at how common burnout and mental health issues are amongst pilots. This is what they found:
As you can see, almost half of the pilot work workforce are experiencing high levels of burnout, with over 1 in 10 pilots meeting the threshold for clinical depression and 1 in 25 pilots having suicidal thoughts… If you apply those figures to a random airline with 3000 pilots, you get some worrisome numbers.
A further study asked 1059 pilots what wellbeing issues (if any) they suffered from during their job. Here’s what was found:
Do you recognise or experience any of the following as well? Although psychological distress was one of the least reported issues, it’s still more than 1 in 3 pilots that suffer from it according to the data!
However, a number of the other reported issues can contribute or cause mental issues, we’ll discuss this later on.
These pilots were tested using a psychological assessment, which indicates how severely someone is psychologically affected based on the reported symptoms. Here are the results:
While only 2% showed symptoms indicating a severe form of depression, 40% were scored “mild”, which can still have various negative effects in the cockpit. Keep in mind that even just 2% is still a lot of pilots based on the amount of pilots flying around globally.
Who’s to blame? We all are. There are a lot of reasons why this issue is so hard to tackle. Open conversations are hard when pilots are concerned about appearing weak, losing their job, or aren’t even aware of how bad the state of their mental health is in the first place!
We all had a wake up call when Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in 2015. The First Officer deliberately crashed the plane and killed all 150 people on board. When the investigation revealed that he had a history of mental health struggles, it blew up the conversation and finally got people asking some of the harder questions. Questions such as: How can we develop better ways to support the mental wellbeing of pilots and other personnel?
We will explore the impact mental health issues can have on flight safety. How can we identify and address mental health issues early on, and what are the ways in which we can all support ourselves and each other? What are the best resources out there to get confidential support? Let’s answer all of these questions, and more!
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- The Biggest Pilot Mental Health Challenge
- How does Mental Health impact Flight Safety?
- Recognising Pilot Mental Health Issues
- 8 Proven ways to Cope with Mental Health Issues
- What are the benefits of taking care of your mental health?
- How can Employers help?
- Where can you get Support for Pilot Mental Health?
The Biggest Pilot Mental Health Challenge
The biggest problem with addressing the issue of mental health in aviation is that the current culture can make it hard to raise issues. It’s comparable to getting a medical exam for your pilot licence: are you looking forward to telling your AME about that health issue you experienced? Of course you’re not, it might be the end of your career!
Openly talking about mental health issues could make us feel ashamed, worried, anxious, and most of all: judged. Pilots worry about a lot of things, but we all sure like to pretend we don’t. We need to break this stigma.
The solution is similar to what we have already (mostly) done as an industry in regards to admitting mistakes, filing ASR’s, and reducing judgement when someone screws up. When we read accidents reports, we (well, most of us) don’t think “hah, look at that idiot!”, and instead think “that could’ve been me, let’s listen and learn from this”.
This same shift will need to happen in regards to pilot mental health. When someone shares a mental struggle they might be experiencing, we need to stop judging that person, and instead offer support while trying to learn from their experiences. It could happen to anyone.
How does Mental Health impact Flight Safety?
The problem with keeping mental health a taboo (like making mistakes used to be, and in some places still is), is that it will turn into a latent threat: An underlying safety issue that will get ignored. Organisations likely won’t even be aware of the threat in the first place! Does that sound like an environment that takes flight safety seriously?
Mental health issues can impact flight safety in so many ways. Take burnout for example. Chronic fatigue plagues both helicopter and fixed wing pilots, to the point that many pilots are now chasing part time rosters to cope with the amount of mental energy being spent on the job.
This is not a mental space you want to be in while having to make decisions that impact flight safety. But of course this is only the tip of the iceberg. Trying to concentrate on things that require attention on the flight deck, while navigating through intrusive thoughts about your last or upcoming proficiency check, your partner’s cancer results, or even why Jimmy over at Planning called you a **** last week, is NOT conducive to a safe flight.
When you wake up in the morning, you have a finite amount of cognitive energy to spend that day, until we recharge properly.
This can be really tricky though in situations where you are distracted, or if you’re simply not in a great mental place.
Human factors are still the biggest cause of aviation accidents. It’s our brain and way of thinking that can make things worse. This risk becomes far greater if that same brain is being distracted with negative emotions and thoughts during flight.
Recognising Pilot Mental Health Issues
So how can you detect the signs of your mental health deteriorating before it goes too far? Here are the biggest indicators:
1) Changes in mood or behaviour: Are you showing signs of being happy one moment, and feeling intense negative thoughts a short moment later? Intrusive thoughts or a distracted mind can have various negative impacts on how you feel from one moment to the next.
Of course we all experience sadness, happiness, and everything in between throughout our lives. But try to ask yourself if the swing from happy to sad takes time, or if it happens very abruptly. If you’re very grumpy all the time when you’re usually a very positive person, have think about what’s really going in your mind.
If you’re irritable at work, or snap at people for no good reason, try to take a step back and assess how you’re really feeling.
2) Difficulty concentrating: Dealing with difficult thoughts or personal issues can all distract from what needs attention in the cockpit. This can very easily get worse if you choose to ignore them or try to downplay it. It usually comes back in an uglier form.
Some people find that it becomes impossible to not think about “X”. If you really feel that way, it’s helpful to realise you might need to take some time to properly process your feelings.
3) Physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue: Having a busy, negative mind is exhausting and draining. It costs a lot of energy to keep our biological computer running, especially if it’s overclocking and trying to sabotage itself.
If you’re constantly fatigued or “need coffee to function properly”, you might need to take a step back. It could help to have a look at how well you’re taking care of yourself, your sleep, and your emotions, and if your physical symptoms come from poor lifestyle choices, or constant negative thoughts.
4) Substance use to cope or to ‘fall asleep’: An all too common way to deal with problems for many people. Lots of people feel the urge to ‘have a few drinks to fall asleep’ or ‘need’ to get drunk during their time off in order to feel better and forget about their problems. However, this could mean there’s more going on under the hood than you might realise.
Being aware of your urges and reflecting on how it could be impacting you negatively, can help with addressing the negative effects on your mental health, and figuring out why you have those urges in the first place.
5) Isolation and withdrawal: For many there’s a natural urge to separate ourselves from the world when we’re feeling down. The problem is that this can make things worse.
Interacting with others, sharing our feelings, venting, and learning from other perspectives can have massively positive effects for our mental health. Doing the opposite has, well, the opposite effect.
This can very easliy turn into viscious cycle that can be hard to break. If you’re feeling fed up with your circumstances or people around you, for some it becomes tempting to try to escape, or run away from daily life. This could result in isolating yourself more and more over time.
6) Feeling overwhelmed: Does everyday life or challenges you normally wouldn’t struggle with make you feel like all hope is lost? This might be an indication that there’s more going on than just the issue you’re trying to deal with.
Negative thoughts that constantly linger in the background require mental energy. If you’re not aware of the fact it can drain you it could manifest into long term mental fatigue. If you’re mentally fatigued, even the smallest decisions or acts can feel huge and too much to deal with.
8 Proven ways to Cope with Mental Health Issues
Dealing with or fixing mental health challenges is a lot easier said than done. The most important focus should be making sure you take care of yourself. This might sound vague, so let’s break down what exactly this could mean for you.
We all recharge in different ways, some of us need a few days off to ourselves, others need a night out with friends, some need time with their partner. However, these are the main proven methods to help:
1) Exercise: This has been a proven way to improve your overall outlook on life, increase confidence, reduces stress. It can even act as a mindful way to process intrusive thoughts and other things that might trouble you.
A recent study in the US proved that individuals who exercise have a 43% reduction in the amount of days they experienced poor mental health.
2) Proper Sleep: If you’re one of those people who seem to think they can get away with 5 hours of sleep a night and still perform, think again. The book ‘Why we Sleep’ by Matthew Walker (a very clever Neuroscientist) explains exactly how sleep ties into a happy, fulfilled, healthy life.
The research done by Matthew proved that the amount of people who can function properly on 5 hours or less, is 0% if you round it down to the nearest percent (it’s 0.4%).
Sure, that’s still a lot of people on a planet with 8 billion people, but it’s still a very small chance that you’re one of them. Sleep will directly impact our mood, thoughts, emotions, and energy levels. All of these can make dealing with mental issues either very doable or extremely challenging.
Make sure you give yourself at least 8 hours of opportunity to sleep. Even if that means laying awake, it will pay dividends in the long run.
3) Social Interaction: Isolation can aggravate mental health issues. The voice in your head has an easier target if you don’t interact with the rest of the world. Isolation has been proven to negatively impact already existing problems in our life. The opposite is true if you can talk through problems or even day to day stuff with close friends or family.
If you find it hard to connect with people, just try to reach out to whoever you feel most comfortable with. Sharing how you feel could feel scary and can leave you feeling vulnerable, but it will pay dividends in the long run as long as you trust the other person.
4) Healthy Diet: Processed foods, sugar, fast food and other foods that lack proper nutrients has been linked to negative emotions, lack of motivation, and poor general health.
The opposite is true if you feed your body well. Not only will this help with staying in shape, food intake heavily influences the brain in both positive and negative ways, depending on your diet.
Night shifts and long haul flights are notorious for lots of snacking, and eating during times where your organs normally get a break from constantly having to work (i.e sleep). Be conscious of how you eat while working outside your circadian rhythm and see where you can improve.
5) Hobbies: Spending your time in ways that make you feel happy, engaged, and in the zone, is a good way to improve your mental health. Not all of us have this luxury, and it really does depend on what your lifestyle looks like at the moment.
However, see how you can make time for things that matter to you and make you happy. We all have busy lives, but setting time aside for this is crucial to recharge and go into work with a sound mind.
6) Mindfulness / Meditation: Meditation or simply taking time to be mindful and in the moment has been proven to drastically reduce stress, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and racing minds. It can also help with feeling more in control of your life.
While this might sound like a load of hocus pocus to some of us who are not really into spirituality or religion, please know that meditation doesn’t have anything to do with religion. It’s simply taking care of your brain, and therefore your emotions, thoughts, perspectives, and ways of thinking about the world.
If you don’t like the sound of meditating, try keeping a journal. At the end of a day full of difficult decisions or thoughts, it can help to write it all down and get it out of your head. Especially knowing you can always come back to reflect on it later.
Actively processing your thoughts and taking time to support a healthy mindset, is a proven method to improve mental clarity, mood, your emotions and overall performance in life.
7) Safeguard a healthy work / life balance: This might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually really surprising how many of us get obsessed with our jobs (especially if they have side activities within a company).
Do you safeguard your time off? Do you check emails while at home? Do you think about work while spending time with your partner or kids? If the answer to any of these is yes, it might be helpful to be more conscious on how work infiltrates your life at home.
Here are the main ways to safeguard a healthy work / life balance:
- Set boundaries, take breaks, become conscious of how much actual rest you get while not at work
- Talk to your employer to see if bespoke roster patterns are an option
- Keep a journal on how you spend your time while not at work, what does your time off look like, and how long does it last, is it enough to recharge properly?
- Consider going part time
- Create a routine that helps with managing your personal time in an efficient way
8) Professional help: If all these are not enough and you still find yourself struggling with thoughts that you find hard to cope with, it might be best to seek professional help.
This sounds more invasive than it has to be. It doesn’t mean you need to get hooked up to some scary machine to see what’s going on in your brain. It could just mean simply talking to someone who is actually qualified to help navigate challenging mental perspectives.
While talking to a friend or family member can be really helpful for a lot of people, you’re still expecting help from someone who might not have a clue on how to actually help you properly (other than simply providing support). In either case, don’t be afraid to reach out, it will help massively.
What are the benefits of taking care of your mental health?
So what are the benefits of doing all of this? Well in one short sentence: The opposite effects of mental health issues! Let’s look at the most notable ones:
1) Increased job performance and flight safety: A rested, calm, happy pilot is a safe and productive pilot. Whether it’s decision making, Crew Resource Management, teamwork, or memory. All safety-dependent traits will improve if mental health is taken care of.
Taking care of yourself as a pilot, mentally and physically, benefits flight safety, efficiency, teamwork, monitoring, communication, and most other things that are crucial on the flight deck.
2) Improved relationships at both work and home: Flying requires cooperation, teamwork, communication, leadership, and understanding. Anything that requires human interaction, from flying an ILS approach, to dealing with emergencies, leans on two or more humans working together efficiently. Team performance can benefit from healthy relationships, whether long term, or just a colleague you fly with for the day and never see again.
3) Increased vigilance / monitoring / alertness: The biggest impact of negative thoughts and emotions are distraction. Distraction is the main threat when it comes to a vigilant pilot monitoring.
Detecting mistakes, cross referencing data, and providing unbiased perspectives are only possible when you’re able to completely focus on things that are going on in the cockpit, in the moment.
4) Better sleep: Sleep is an interesting one. A healthier mind means better sleep, better sleep means a healthier mind. It’s a catch 22 if one of them is missing, but you need to start somewhere. Sleep hygiene and being aware of how sleep works is a crucial first step to a healthier mind, we covered this in our previous article on sleep.
5) More job satisfaction / fulfilment: Being able to be in the moment and enjoy what you worked so hard for to do for a living, is a luxury not many people will ever be able to experience. Unfortunately, if you’re dealing with mental health issues, none of those positive thoughts might ever be able to reach the surface.
Dealing with mental health issues can bring those feelings of joy and satisfaction back to some who haven’t felt fulfilled in their job for years. If you’re feeling like the job isn’t for you anymore, please don’t make any career related decisions before addressing what might be influencing those feelings.
How can Employers help?
While at the end of the day, we need to take ownership of our own thoughts and emotions, employers (and regulators) should also feel invested in promoting good mental health. Especially within any profession where safety is the building block of the operation.
What are the best ways they can get involved? Well, here are the most beneficial factors towards healthy mindsets within an organisation:
1) Promote a just culture: What is a just culture? The UK CAA defines it as:
We need to contribute to a culture where mistakes can be openly discussed and learnt from. Of course there is a line, also known as gross negligence, where you can’t expect to not be held accountable.
However, raising your hand and being able to say ‘I screwed up, let’s talk about it’ is essential for a continuous improvement in aviation safety.
2) Provide mental health resources: Companies should have at the very least an independent / external service for pilots to talk to someone about confidential issues. Many airlines and operators offer peer support programmes or other initiatives that allow pilots to deal and process challenging situations – a very essential tool that help us go in the right direction!
If your company doesn’t, use the list below and try to get involved, or sign up to a peer support project.
3) Train management and supervisors properly so they can recognise and deal with mental health issues amongst pilots. There are still a lot of managers in the world who preach the ‘don’t be a **** and shut up’ mentality.
This achieves nothing. In fact, it usually makes things worse and usually comes down to a lack of leadership or management training, or simply people who should not have made it to that point.
4) Offer flexible / bespoke scheduling: Many pilots are on the verge of burnout, especially in the airlines. Short haul budget airlines are pushing the boundaries of what is legally possible, and pilots are feeling the effects. Many pilots who are between 20-30 years old and are getting ready for their command upgrade, are on the verge of burnout.
They’ve likely sacrificed the last 10 years of their life to aviation, and their passion can be a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health and overall work / life balance.
Airlines should be aware of this, having someone in the cockpit that’s on the edge of burning out is not something you want to be testing the results of.
5) Have more limited FTL schemes than the regulator dictates to protect pilots more. Like the discussion on recency vs competency, just because an FTL scheme is legal, doesn’t mean it actually contributes to a rested pilot. Operators with high sickness levels should ask themselves what they’re really asking their pilots to do year after year.
Where can you get Support for Pilot Mental Health?
If you feel you want some help in overcoming poor mental health, there are some (mostly free) options available. Here are the most accessible aviation mental health organisations that can help you:
Burnout Among Pilots (Demerouti et al. 2017)
Airline Pilot Mental Health and Suicidal Thoughts (Wu et al. 2016)
Pilot Work Related Stress (Cahill et al. 2021)
Prioritising pilot mental health is not only crucial for ensuring safe and successful flights, but also for the overall health and wellbeing of pilots themselves.
By taking proactive steps to support the mental health of pilots, airlines and other stakeholders in the aviation industry can create a safer, healthier, and more productive workplace for all of us.
If you’re struggling yourself, or know someone that is: we hope this article can be a valuable source of support and information. Feel free to reach out to either one of us if we can help in any way, our contact details are in the ‘About Us’ page.
Fly safe, and try to be that positive influence someone out there might need!