The elephant in the room

Superbowl Sunday was anything but super. Not only was the game a huge disappointment to anyone who enjoys competitive sports, but earlier in the day news broke that Philip Seymour Hoffman had been found dead in his Greenwich Village apartment.

Aviation shares something in common with sports and show business, whether we choose to believe it or not. Pilots, aircraft mechanics, air traffic controllers, even baggage handlers and line service workers are considered by their friends and neighbors to be different. The jobs we do are considered to be slightly cooler and more desirable.

After all, we deal in the sexy, glittery world of aviation. It is our mission in life to put hands on a machine that will launch into the sky, travel at considerably speed, and then land someplace far away, maybe even someplace exotic.

As a result, we’re held to a higher standard. We need to be above reproach, especially in this modern age when aviation is a factor in our quest for national security. We are envied and we are feared, because we do something oh so fascinating, and because our industry can kill not just participants, but innocent bystanders as well.

All this boils down to a profession and a lifestyle that includes an implied pressure to perform. Like a football player, or an actor, we aviation types are critiqued, studied, considered, evaluated, and judged on a regular basis.

Make a mistake and you’ll hear about it. Make a big enough mistake and you’ll see it in the newspaper and on the television. Heaven forbid you run off the end of the runway, land at the wrong airport, have an in-flight emergency, or put the aircraft down someplace other than an airport. Suddenly you’re an unwilling media target.

It’s at that moment an individual finds out just how bright the spotlight of public opinion can be, and how badly it can burn.

Most of us handle this perceived pressure well. Some of us don’t even recognize the challenges faced by aeronautical participants as pressure at all. But it’s there, and some of us feel the burden more than others. Some of us fret, and fuss, and worry, and stress over the day-to-day machinations of our pursuits.

But we don’t talk about those concerns publicly, because to admit to being worried is tantamount to admitting weakness. And there’s little in life humans work harder to cover up than a weakness. So we pretend everything is fine, even when it isn’t. A small number of us continue to pretend all is well even as our lives spin out of control, headed in a direction that is undeniably detrimental to us and potentially to others as well.

With luck, we find help. If not there is at least a chance we’ll be found out and lose our medical, or get fired, or be stopped from doing what we do by some other means. Some of us will continue with what we’re doing unchecked, however.

The darkness will continue to cloud our vision, adversely affecting our decision making. Because we aviation types are like football players who’ve just lost the big game, or actors who are struggling with self-doubt on a scale that would terrify most people, we aren’t about to admit we’re having trouble. Certainly not. To stand up tall and say out loud, “I’m having a difficult time emotionally. I need some help,” is perceived as being absolutely unacceptable in aviation. We’re tougher than that.

We’re wrong. And if we don’t change our ways, we may find that instead of toughening up and making the skies safer, we’ve merely established a system that breaks the individual and introduces an unnecessary risk to the system — all to avoid the embarrassment of admitting the obvious. We are human and sometimes we need a break. We need help.

Mental health is as critical to aviation hobbyists and professionals as it is to any other profession. Yet we may spend more time denying our susceptibility to the very human reactions to stress than any other profession or hobby.

We do this even with the knowledge that our peers self-medicate just like anyone else might under certain circumstances. We are not fundamentally different from our friends and neighbors. We can contract the virus that’s going around just as easily as they can. And we can suffer from mental stresses and illnesses just as easily, too.

Until we begin to address this reality, our industry will continue to be imperiled by our hubris. It is time for us to accept our humanity, our frailty, and allow the participants in this industry the freedom to address mental issues with the same open means we use to deal with physical maladies.

The Denver Broncos tanked in the big game on Sunday. Each member of that team is taking a beating this week from sportswriters and fans. They’re also beating themselves up for the performance they turned in.

Much as Philip Seymour Hoffman may have been beating himself up for his perceived failings.

And yes, right there is a pilot and a mechanic and an ATC professional who is struggling. Let’s give them the support they need to stop and get some help without risking their employment or their dignity.

It’s time.

Comments

  1. NRydman says

    I suggest you sit at a hotel bar near any airline hub and pay attention. It doesn’t take long to overhear conversation revealing a few patrons to be off duty pilots. I have personally witnessed one crew proclaim “last call, gotta’ show at 6:00am,” and then proceed to order another round and carry them up to their rooms so they can continue to drink in privacy.

    Also, it seems that every year or so in the news another pilot is caught drunk on his way through the TSA….

    And, how many pilots have we flown with that weren’t quite on their game due to stress from family issues, divorce, financial problems, perhaps hiding some depression? etc… This stuff is real and no one can claim they are immune.

    It is miserable but likely normal for anybody to suffer a lot of this stuff. And it should be perfectly acceptable to seek counseling/therapy to address it and a person shouldn’t have to hide it out of fear of loosing the career.

    Does the FAA need to overhaul its attitude on this? ABSOLUTELY! So this discussion needs to happen, my hat is off to the author.

    “This is a stupid article”?…..”Dumbest article ever”?……. “I’ve always thought aviation was different than the general populace”? Wow. The ignorance in some of these responses is astounding. Are your lives really that perfect? How many drinks do you have on a regular basis? It’s a safe bet that many of you/us will need help at some point… I just don’t want to be on your airplane before you get it.

      • NRydman says

        Actually, the FAA is human too… With no more immunity to this stuff as anybody else. This should be an easy argument…

        • Melvin Freedman says

          Your’e right. I guess the issue of the 3rd class med will be around for ever, no matter what the truth really is on the affectiveness of this on safety. And yes the FAA are really humans who suffer from the same maladies known and unknow.

  2. James Carlson says

    Excellent article! You’re right on point about aviation’s lack of respect for mental health issues, both in the regulatory area and in the general community.

    The comments suggesting otherwise are only serving to support your argument that we have a problem.

  3. Bernard Dunn says

    No one in their right mind is going to seek help or treatment for a mental health problem … ie ” I have trouble sleeping, ect ” if they want to do anything to do in aviation, own a firearm or get a good job. The system is the problem.
    How many of us go to the Doctor when we have a problem ? I know I have stayed as far from doctors as I can. Why, The FAA, that’s why. The system is the problem and nothing is going to change untill the system does. Then and only then will people not be afraid to get help.

  4. Les says

    Truth is, human nature is human nature. We can’t pass laws that change that. These laws are destined to fail. Pleasure seekers are pleasure seekers. This is true of pilots, drug users, alcoholics (sanctioned drug users), tobacco smokers, dare devils, etc. Our society treats the segment of our population with a drug problem as criminals, alcoholics and cigarette smokers as worthy of help, and dare devils and pilots as the ordinary person next door. I dare say the stupidity in this equation is the type of individual who is too shallow socially (or too old) to grasp the issue. If we maintain the status quo? The problem will never be solved. I’m personally glad the old people are going away. It will take a new brand of thinking to invoke meaningful change and solve this prolonged social problem.

    • melvin freedman says

      Les, that remark about old people is uncalled for. We have fought faa med thing for a life time. It isn’t going away.

  5. Melvin Freedman says

    Well folks, maybe the auto dealer, when selling a car, should see that the customer is medically, or mentaly fit. See how the auto industry handles that

  6. Jay says

    Whatever the vague question is here, psychology is not the answer. Pavlov and Maslow are not American names. Those guys needed to stay in Russia where human experimentation and drug torture in prison camps originated. Quit feeding tons of strange pharmaceuticals and dangerous vaccines to people and most so-called psychological problems will disappear.

  7. says

    The FAA discovered after more than 4500 hours of logged pilot time with a clean record, n ATP, CFII and before that getting a DFC as a C-130 navigator in Vietnam, that I have high functioning autism. They attempted to diagnose me as having personality disorders that one of their psychiatric consultants claims all autistic people have. It took me 5 years to get my medical restored and a high ranking forensic psychiatry professor investigating how they botched their attempt to make a diagnosis without any examination, breaking numerous medical protocol and even ethics rules. Next I had to prove to them that I was not retarded, something they only allowed me to do after I sent them a copy of my PhD in mathematical physics and applied mathematics.
    I realize that they are overworked with their caseloads, but their ineptitude and questionable medical ethics makes them less trustworthy.

    • melvin freedman says

      Dr, I can feel your dispair. I also have a horror story. I must say that this problem with the faa and the 3rd class med will only get worse. And the pvt population needs to really speakup.

  8. Wayne says

    What the heck are you suggesting, Jamie? That someone monitor us? Make sure we are okay? We get tested on a regular basis? Maybe a psych eval should be part of each medical? Most of us are capable of monitoring ourselves and getting help if and when it’s needed.

  9. Mack says

    Heroin addiction is very common, I’ve heard. Wealthy youngsters dip into their parents pain relievers, mostly Vicodin, and after they’re taking 40 pills a day, they can’t stop, or else they get very sick. They can take heroin instead, which is cheaper.

    $1400 a week, for this addiction, causes them to steal, do anything for money.

    Morality down the crapper.

    Why do we want them, in aviation?

  10. Kirk Fowler says

    Mr. Beckett: What are you actually proposing? How many lives will you actually save? How much will it cost? And most importantly: Is there any other way to spend that much and save even more lives?

  11. says

    As a practicing clinical psychologist and avid pilot, I am pleased that you are opening a conversation about this. I am very concerned about the impact of untreated mental health issues on all aspects of life, including aviation. To me, it is a real tragedy that the FAA seems to discourage treatment seeking by a group of individuals who are already averse to admitting weakness and difficulties. I wish that the FAA would clarify exactly what they mean when they are asking some of those questions regarding mental health treatment, but the data suggest that it is FAR BETTER for any person (including pilots) to seek help for their struggles rather than avoiding or otherwise self-medicating them. Many mental health concerns are treatable without any medication whatsoever, and in fact over the long term this seems to be the preferred route for many if not most conditions. I hope that we can keep this conversation going.

    • says

      Thank you, Mitch. I appreciate your reasoned response, based on your experience in the mental health field, I’m sure. Like you, I hope the conversation continues and becomes a more common topic of discussion.

      • says

        Sure. Based on some of the comments I’ve seen, I suspect raising this awareness will be more challenging than it first appears. It seems hard for some to admit the possibility that at least some pilots have some mental health concerns that – if treated – would make them safer pilots.

  12. Robert says

    From recent experience I believe the mental health of some FAA employees needs to be looked into. Anyone who has been involved in aviation for more than a month has likely heard of or experienced irrational actions or decisions from local and higher up FAA employees.

    I have far seen far more questionable/irrational acts committed by FAA employees lately than from my fellow pilots and mechanics.

  13. Thomas Boyle says

    It doesn’t help that the FAA has been known to ground people for merely listing a therapist in their disclosure of medical professionals. Argh!

  14. Mack says

    I always thought aviation was different than the general populace.

    Passing out from drinking, altering realities with drugs, enabling the wealthy to be selfish and irresponsible, that is the way of the general populous.

    What enables aviators to fly, is facing and coping with realities, and not passing out, and not relagating navigation to ATC.

    In my my own personal life, I take responsibility for maintenance, too, because I don’t believe it the costly, flawed, FBO system. ( gosh, when under government approval, so many Superior rod bolts were placed in Lycoming engines, causing so many dead stick landings. I could go on and on with government failings in aircraft maintenance.)

    Like most everyone, I never knew of the actor’s existence, he was dead to me before he died, like some lovely space alien in an unknown solar system, unknown to Earthings.

    I won’t be joining him in getting high, my high is in the third dimension (altitude), and that is what makes me an aviator, not having more money than you.

  15. says

    For those who may have an interest in OTHER than aviation .i.e. “the arts”, I suggest they look up/check out the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s credentials.
    The very talented young man, and thanks Jamie for mentioning his sad ironic demise, was perhaps one of the “brightest” acting talents to come to Hollywood in the last 15+ years.
    Personally, I find this is so tragic that talent, success, fame and fortune, just isn’t enough for so many actors, personalities, and celebrities and this doesn’t result in
    contentment or happiness?

  16. Tim Fountain says

    I’d never heard of the guy, and I hope he is now resting in peace. What’s really shocking is that every year more than ~36,900 people in the US take their own lives. Even more shocking is that this is more than the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents. CDC conducted an 11 year study (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr60/nvsr60_03.pdf).

    “In 2009, the number of deaths from suicide surpassed the number of deaths from motor vehicle crashes in the United States.” So reads the opening line from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for May 3. According to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, the number of fatalities from car crashes in 2009 was 33,883 — down from 37,423 in 2008. In 2009, there were 36,909 suicides in the U.S., according to the CDC — up from 36,035 in 2008. Which is shocking enough as it is, given all we hear about drunken driving and car accidents. What we didn’t know about this data at the time of the switch in 2009 was the specificity: Now we have clues as to how suicide rates are increasing, at least in so far as how old the people killing themselves are.

    These numbers don’t even count people who take their own lives over a longer period, through drug, alcohol abuse for instance.

  17. David Lawrence says

    Keep writing what’s on your mind, Jamie. You think beyond the superficial and all the rah, rah of the aviation activity we enjoy and connect the dots of it with life and it’s realities. Keep thinking, probing, reflecting, and sharing your inspirations with us….
    We may know all the V speeds sitting in the cockpit, but we log a lot more time living in a world without such absolutes….

  18. gregg reynolds says

    Huge disappointment? Likely for Denver fans. But even them held out hope into the second half for a classic comeback. The Super Bowl pitted the best professional offense, led by perhaps the finest ever QB, versus the best defense in the NFL. It drew the biggest television audience ever for a single show telecast, while showing the odds makers aren’t always close.

    Suggest you refer to the handbook of metaphors before your next pontificating on matters aviation.

  19. Kent Misegades says

    I must be getting old, never heard of this person, RIP. How much you wanna bet he started his habit with marijuana? You can’t fix stupid.

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