By Dr. Randy Georgemiller and Dr. Raymond E. King, FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine
Everyone is vulnerable to the stresses of life. The World Health Organization (WHO) claims that 25% of the population develops one or more mental or behavioral disorders in their lifetime. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated stress factors for many of us, and in some instances people may be learning to cope with new challenges. Pilots, despite having skills and proficiencies many others do not, are still not immune from these challenges.
For many pilots, aviation is more of a lifestyle than just a simple hobby, and the pandemic has introduced greater stress into a lifestyle that can already be stressful. This is particularly true for those who also work in aviation, as we have seen a dramatic decrease in airline passenger traffic for much of the pandemic. Though those numbers are creeping back up, the industry is still in recovery.
While not everyone who undergoes stress will develop a mental health disorder, greater stress can impact our physical health as well as our mental health. In fact, one impacts the other; depression and anxiety for instance can manifest as physical pain. That’s just one reason why it’s important to seek out the appropriate support.
We know this topic can add a certain amount of added stress when it comes to maintaining an active airman certificate. There are medical standards in place to ensure the safety of the national airspace, and the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine considers every airman’s situation on a case-by-case basis.
We can’t state this enough: the surest way back to the cockpit after a mental health event, such as an episode of depression or dependence on alcohol, is to get treatment and not hide what you are going through.
The best way to take care of mental health issues is to get support, and to do so as early as possible before small problems become bigger problems. There are groups focused on specific issues, such as grief and substance abuse, and also groups that focus on specific occupations, such as pilot support groups. There is no shame needing help sometimes, the shame is suffering in silence.
Here are a few resources that may help:
- Coping with Stress — CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html?CDC
- Promoting, Maintaining and Supporting Mental Well-being in Aviation During the Covid-19 Pandemic — ICAO (pdf): https://www.eaap.net/get/news/7004-0.pdf
- An Aviation Professional’s Guide to Wellbeing — Flight Safety Foundation (pdf): https://flightsafety.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Guide-to-Wellbeing.pdf