As a pilot, navigating turbulence is part of the job. But what many people don’t realize is that the sky isn’t the only turbulent place in the lives of many pilots.
In recent weeks, the spotlight has turned to mental health after an off-duty pilot was accused of trying to shut down the engines on a passenger jet mid-flight. That pilot later told authorities he believed he was having a nervous breakdown and hadn’t slept in 40 hours. He also admitted that he struggles with depression and that he had allegedly taken psychedelic mushrooms two days before.
The incident raised not only concerns, but also questions about the pressures on pilots.
“We don’t sleep in the same hotel every night, let alone in the same bed. There’s noise. It’s hot, it’s cold. You can’t fall asleep straight away from tossing and turning. Or maybe you had a cup of coffee early in the afternoon,” said Reyné O’Shaughnessy.
Reyné O’Shaughnessy is a former commercial pilot with over 35 years of experience. He says being a pilot requires a high level of performance day in and day out, year in and year out. The unsurprising request can take a toll on the mental health of those in the cockpit.
You can add the aspects of everyday life on top of that, she says, and people can quickly feel overwhelmed.
“Our external pressures are the same as anyone else’s. We have divorces. We have illness. We have elderly parents, we have naughty children, we have teenage children, we have social media, we have financial problems. We have bankruptcies, we have sleeping problems. We have…just , the list goes on and on and on,” O’Shaughnessy said.
O’Shaughnessy says that opening up these questions can be particularly difficult for pilots.
“In the airline industry, we are a very cautious group because of the regulations that govern the airline industry,” O’Shaughnessy said.
She added that pilots of regular medical examinations are not effective in detecting non-physical diseases.
“What happens is before you go to the doctor’s office, you’re asked to fill out this form. And the form is mostly self-reporting. So if you don’t self-report depression….” she said he said, “no there’s a way to notice or gauge someone’s psychological well-being, because a lot of times they look perfect to other people,” O’Shaughnessy said.
She says many pilots choose not to postpone these fights for fear of the consequences that could keep them on the ground.
Scripps News requested an interview from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The agency just sent out a statement saying, “Pilots must report certain mental health conditions to their aviation medical examiner during regular medical examinations. The FAA encourages pilots to seek help if they have a mental health condition because most, if treated, do not disqualify the pilot from flying. Over the past several years, the FAA has invested resources to remove the stigma surrounding mental health in the aviation community, so that pilots seek treatment.”
“I have to say that our airlines have peer to peer groups and they are excellent, and they do a great job with the resources they have. But they are underutilized,” O’Shaughnessy said.
“They don’t feel like they can trust someone with the keys to their lives,” O’Shaughnessy said.
O’Shaughnessy is trying to change that with his organization – Piloting 2 Wellbeing – which works to promote aviation safety and mental wellbeing among pilots, providing them with resources and support to cope with the pressures they face.
“The motivation behind it was watching my colleagues suffer,” she said. “It’s amazing how many stories you hear when you’re in flight because it’s just the two of you. And they open up because, I don’t know, maybe I’m a good listener,” O’Shaughnessy said.
He says that by addressing these stresses and improving health habits like sleep, exercise and diet, pilots can avoid feeling grounded.
“When you’re pushed and you’re pushed to the max, you’re maxed out, you’re optimized. You can’t optimize people like you optimize mechanical engines. So now I think people are starting to feel that crack in their engine and they’re tough,” O’Shaughnessy said. .