This AINsight column about mental health originally appeared in Aviation International News on December 16, 2022.
As an aviation recruiter, I interview people for a living. And one of my go-to questions is to ask them about a professional failure they’ve experienced.
Last week, a candidate shared that his biggest professional failure was early on in his career, when he noticed that a colleague was really struggling. His colleague had a behavioral issue that kept him from working in a focused way—and it continued to worsen.
Our candidate tried and tried to help his friend, but, for the safety of the operation, he finally chose to report the issue to management. And by doing so, he lost a friend, but was able to avert a possible safety risk. This candidate saw himself as a failure for not being able to do more to help.
Tackling Mental Health
Mental health issues in aviation are real, and not just within the pilot ranks. In fact, in the above example, the individuals were both A&P maintenance technicians.
While mental health issues can affect anyone in any role in aviation, it’s the pilots who have the most at stake for recognizing them and getting help. After all, exposing the issue could affect their ability to hold a first-class medical certificate, and, ultimately, their ability to work and support their families.
The question for each pilot who struggles is: If I admit this and seek help, will I be reported?
Last month, at the Bombardier Safety Standdown, the topic of mental health took center stage. And those in the audience could have heard a pin drop during several presentations, including one from Matt McNeil.
A pilot himself and well-versed on the FAA regulations regarding medical certificates, McNeil is the founder, president, clinical director, and director of human performance at LiftAffect. He quoted many sobering statistics, such as the fact that one in five people will experience a mental illness each year and that it takes an average person 10 years to finally ask for help.
McNeil also shared that about 20 percent of pilots have undetected and untreated mental health issues that impact behavior, reliability, and performance. He went on to share results from a Harvard study revealing that “hundreds of pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, perhaps without the possibility of treatment due to fear of negative career impact.”
Two Key Takeaways
Two of his best practices really resonated with me. The first was that peers can be a key catalyst in early detection. He explained, “Peers—that’s you—you’re in a position to recognize early signs and symptoms of mental health issues. You don’t have to be a licensed mental health professional. You’ve just got to open your eyes and know what to look for. And you can refer your colleague or your family member or yourself to professional resources.”
McNeil’s second key takeaway was regarding mental skills training and coaching, which focus on preventative health. Obviously, it’s much easier to assess issues of stress, fatigue, and substance misuse before they become serious depression, chronic fatigue, and substance abuse.
How to Help
But what exactly are we looking for, and when and where should we report the matter?
McNeil suggests that we look for a decline in function over time. As peers, we can be trained very easily and accurately to identify: chronic fatigue; sadness that can become depression—when the spigot doesn’t turn off; fear and/or worry becoming serious anxiety; substance abuse and dependency addiction; suicidal ideation; consistent irritability over time; confused thinking, mood changes, workplace conflicts and/or loss of resiliency.
If we see any of the above issues of concern, that’s when it’s important to say, “Hey, I think you need to get some help. I’m concerned.”
What options are available for pilots?
But where are these programs for Part 91 flight departments—especially the small, one-aircraft organizations that employ an average of five or less aviation professionals?
That’s where companies such as LiftAffect come in. LiftAffect is a telehealth organization that works with only pilots, and they rely on mental skills coaching and offer confidential help that isn’t reportable to the FAA. It also complies with HIPPA privacy laws. You may also look for mental health professionals who have experience working with the FAA.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Should we focus on mental skills training as part of our annual training? Should it be a mandatory key performance indicator? Given the statistics, in a flight department of five or more, it’s likely that at least one person is wrangling with anxiety or depression.
McNeil recommends that corporate flight departments increase their support for preventative mental health treatment. And, as an industry, we should make our collective voices heard and ask for investments in recognition, training, and coaching. This has to be done from the top down.
Moreover, I was encouraged to learn from McNeil that Dr. Susan Northrup, the new FAA Federal Air Surgeon, recognizes the mental health concerns of pilots and is open to discussing solutions. Additionally, NBAA is working with the FAA to create resources for business aviation.
Creating more preventative healthcare solutions could save our industry significant money. But far more importantly, it could diminish personal pain, discomfort, and even shame associated with these highly personal issues.
Missed attending the Safety Standdown? You can still watch Matt McNeil’s webcast presentation online.
About the Author
Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.