Mental health importance for aviators

The present global pandemic is directly affecting the aviation industry, as flying is designed to connect people while COVID-19 recommendations and restrictions disconnect people to reduce the spread of the virus.

It is easy to be discouraged by the crisis, however looking on the positive side there are some valuable lessons to be learned from it. Unfortunately, the mental health and well being of pilots and staff have not been acknowledged let alone focused on in the past due to perceived fear of medical certification and licensing issues. In 2015 after the devastating Germanwings 9525 event, the mental health of aviators was openly accepted as an important issue.

Captian Laurie Shaw explains that during this time of difficulty ‘it is helpful to have a basic knowledge of the neuroscience of the brain’ to understand why you react the way you do in an abnormal situation. The human brain is a social organ, divided into the following five categories:

  • Personal status (in connection to others)
  • Certainty (able to predict the future)
  • Autonomy (feeling control over events)
  • Relatedness (connection and a sense of safety with others)
  • Fairness (personal perception of fair interactions with others)

With the change COVID-19 has made to our lives, all five aspects of the brain can be tested abnormally. The human brain is hardwired in needing connection and when the limbic system overcomes the thinking part of our brain, our sense of connection is often overtaken with isolation, resulting in loneliness. Loneliness is stressful and is itself a threat response to lack of social contact, activating the same neurochemicals that fill the system in response to physical pain.

Self-medication through substance abuse is commonly found as a coping mechanism and unfortunately is amplified by unprecedented and stressful situations. In the past pilots who have developed a substance use disorder are unlikely to self refer themselves for medical help. Often it is not until the pilot is caught out that the issue is addressed and then usually involves disciplinary consequences.

Australia has now addressed mental health for pilots as openly important and support groups such as Birds of a Feather provide a safe and confidential place for aviators to meet and discuss problems and struggles. An Australian ‘nest’ was established in 2019 and uses video conferencing to connect.

Whilst the current crisis is devastating, it has emphasized the importance of personally recognising mental health and well being, providing an opportunity to remove past stigma relating to mental health not only in the aviation community, but our community as a whole.

If this article has raised concerns for you or a loved one, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14

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