Few things in aviation are so stigmatized as talking about mental health! So why is that? Why is mental health something that most pilots rather not talk about? However, mental illness is as likely to occur among pilots as any other person in society.
It is also important to remember that mental health is something that is changeable. Even if everything is fine today and you do not show any signs of any kind of psychological illness or disorders, different situations in life can quickly change this. In the past, mental disorders were looked down upon. At one point, in the not so distant past, someone with a mental disease was thought to have been possessed by demons! This is probably why today it is still very stigmatized.
Scandlearn has put together a great online training in Mental Health in Aviation to help people be aware, gain knowledge and better prevent mental illness for yourself and colleagues.
To explain how mental illness can surface and take over someone’s life, let me tell you a story about Johan Skydancer, a very good friend of mine. John has agreed to allow me to write about his story so other pilots and aviation professionals can see that mental illnesses or disorders can happen to anyone. John is also hopeful that this story can help others in similar situations.
To be clear, this is based on a true story and one of many reasons I want people to take mental illness as a serious factor. Let’s begin.
John Skydancer got The Right Stuff!
John and I had been friends since the first day of flight school. We sat beside each other at the introduction class and we really hit it off. John was a very ambitious student and he had a remarkable talent for understanding everything right away! He aced all the tests and always got much praise from his flight instructors. I don’t think I would ever have made it through flight school if it had not been for John. He was always there, helping me along with my studies. I quickly realized that I would never be an aviation god like John Skydancer but I did pull through, many thanks to him.
John loved flying and had a passion that I have only seen in very few pilots. Even if he was a natural-born pilot, he was also a very humble individual, never trying to shine in his brilliance. John truly was the ”right stuff”, made for a life in the sky! I can’t see a more fitting surname than Skydancer for a person like John. However, when we first meet his name was John Green. Skydancer came later after he married his wonderful girlfriend Laura.
Anyone can get drunk every now and then, doesn’t mean you have an alcohol abuse problem... right?
John and Laura meet a few months after we began our flight training. Laura was a local girl in the town where our flight school was located. They meet at a grill party at John’s flight instructor’s home. They instantly fell in love and got married right after graduation. Laura was a dance instructor at the local performing arts centre. She had the same passion for dancing as John had for flying. To express their passions for flying, dancing, and to each other, they decided to take the name Skydancer when they got married. I couldn’t imagine a better name for the two of them!
So far so good, right?
Both John and I got pilot jobs shortly after graduation. Unfortunately not in the same company and this meant that we found new homes in different cities. We continued to keep in touch and visited each other as often as we could. John and Laura were very happy and eventually bought a beautiful house in a suburb of the city where John was based. The only dark cloud on their horizon was that they really wanted kids. No matter how hard they tried, nothing seemed to work.
After eight years of doing everything they could, they finally gave up the hopes of children blessing their marriage. Then it happened! First came Lucas and two years later Lea. Their happiness was complete! In addition, John got his first command just after Lucas was born. Things had really come together for the Skydancers! John seemed to love his life, wife and kids. Actually, he more than loved his kids. He adored them. They were his everything. I know his wife Laura came a close second to his passion of flying. I always thought this was unfair. A better wife and companion than Laura could not be found (with exception of my own wife of course!). The kids however were something that John put high above anyone and anything.
After yet another couple of years, an opportunity presented itself for me to be based in the same city as the Skydancer family. This was truly a great time in our lives. We now have more time to enjoy each other’s company!
His drunkenness was not so much fun anymore
Even if John and I were known to pop a beer or two when we got together, I had never seen John drunk. Like everything else about John, he was very controlled. The consumption of alcohol was no exception. So to my surprise when we, after a wonderful Saturday afternoon get-together in the Skydancer’s garden, found that John had become completely plastered! Of course, this could happen to anyone but it was so uncharacteristic of John. All that my wife and I could do was to laugh. Well, at least we thought it was funny in the beginning.
When it was time for us to leave, we picked up empty beer cans from the yard and went into the kitchen. When we entered the kitchen we were surprised to see John screaming at Laura and Luke and Lea was crying. Laura was crying too. When John saw us he just walked away, up the stairs to his study on the second floor and slammed the door. I was trying to run after him but Laura stopped me and told me to let it be. I asked her, with dismay, what that was all about? She just shook her head and said it would be alright. I tried to convince her talk about it but she just wiped her tears and asked if we would like to have anything else to eat or drink. We told her that we should probably get going. I had a flight Sunday night and should have an early evening and get a good night of sleep. I told Laura I would call John in the morning to see that everything was ok.
I called John the next morning. He answered and sounded like himself again. He apologized for the previous afternoon and said that he was really embarrassed. I told him not to worry about it as it could happen to the best of us. I couldn’t but think that even if it could happen to the best, it doesn’t happen to John!
The day the truth reached the surface
A few days later, when I returned from my trip, I went to the supermarket to get some food. It had always been my job to buy groceries. My wife hated food shopping and she would rather starve when I was away flying than go to the store. Needless to say, as soon as I got back from a trip I had to go to the store.
In the store parking lot I saw Laura loading their station wagon with groceries. I went up to her and asked how she was doing. I hadn’t talked to John or Laura since the previous weekend and hoped that the everything was okay. But I could see in her face that things were not good. I had never seen Laura so sad and I could see her eyes tearing up when she looked at me.
“Three years!” I said with disbelief. “how could I have not noticed anything and why have you not talked to me before?” She said it had been a real slow process and it had not been until the last couple of months that it has escalated out of control.
“No JT. Things are not good.” she said and continued, “John is not himself. He spends most of his time in his study. When I asked what he is doing, he only shakes his head and says that he is just checking the weather. He always checks the weather”. She continues, “I know that checking the weather is part of you guys job but it almost has become an obsession for John”.
I didn’t really understand. I too had an interest in weather but of course, it was not an obsession… I asked Laura why she called it an obsession?
“Well,” she said, “it used to be that he always could tell us what the weather was going to do in the next few days and he had more than once tried to teach me about clouds and stuff. But what I have seen lately is something different. You can’t tell him but I actually did go into his browser history on his computer. I know! I feel really bad about it but I just had to know what was keeping him so occupied. It turned out that about two days before he was going out on his next trip, he had been into sixteen different weather sites!”
I agreed that sounded a little unusual.
“In addition to this, he has been very moody. Can you imagine John moody? He used to be solid as a rock, even-tempered and calm. The outpour you and your wife witnessed last weekend is not very uncommon. JT, I don’t know what to do? The kids are scared of him and I just can’t get through to him and he actually scares me too. I don’t know what is wrong with him but it seems it is getting worse.”
“How long has this been going on?” I asked.
Laura thought for a moment and said ” I think it really started around three years ago.”
”He barely talks to me any more. I want to help him but I don’t know what to do to get through to him. Another thing that is really weird is that he has called in sick several times during the last year, even if he didn’t seem very sick to me. He blamed it on a migraine. Can you imagine! I mean John has never called in sick before. Quite the opposite. There have been times in the past when he had colds and fever and I begged him to stay home but he insisted on going to work. He also drinks quite a bit and not just a little. He often gets drunk, all by himself, in front of the computer. He just seems depressed. After all our years together, I have never seen him this way. It is like he is a different person. What is going on JT? I just don’t know what to do?”
I was really shocked and surprised by what Laura was telling me. I had a feeling that she didn’t tell me everything. There was more bad things but I didn’t want to press her. I promised her that I would try to talk to John but the time had to be right. Even if John was my best friend, I could not just call him up and ask why he is screaming at his wife and kids, drinking to much, and obsessively surfing weather sites! It just had to be the right time to get a conversation going in that direction. Little did I know that the time would come very soon and I was not at all prepared…
What if I was a little bit too late
Just a few days later, a late evening in August, Laura called me. The past week had been really hot and muggy. The humidity was really high and bad thunderstorms cursed us every night. So was the case on this particular evening, the thunder and lightning were all over the sky and the rain was coming down in buckets. Laura was completely destroyed when I answered the phone. She was crying uncontrollably and I could barely understand what she was saying. I told her to hang on and I hurried over to the Skydancer’s home. Laura was still crying when I stepped in the door.
“John has locked himself in his study and he has been there all day long. He doesn’t answer when I talk to him through the door and I can’t get him to open it! Even the kids have tried to make him open the door but he just doesn’t respond!” Laura said.
I went up to the second floor and knocked on the door to John’s study with no response. Obviously, John wouldn’t open the door for me either. On my way to their front door, I had noticed that the window to John’s study was partially open. I asked Laura if they had a ladder and she showed me one in the garage. I took the ladder and placed it against the wall below the window and climbed up. It was raining very hard and I was getting drenched!
When I came up to the window and looked inside I thought my heart was going to stop. John was sitting in his recliner across the room just staring at me in the window. In his right hand that was resting on the armrest, he had one really large knife. I had seen it before. John had shown it to me on several occasions. He had gotten it from his grandfather. It had been his grandfather’s hunting knife. The left arm was resting on the other armrest and his shirtsleeve was pushed up. I could see several bloody streaks on the arm where he had cut himself.
My heart was racing. What do I do? Was he going to kill himself? What should I say? Did I dare open up the window and climb into the room?
This was, by far, the most bizarre and scary situation I ever been in.
This story is to be continued in 2 more parts.
Raise awareness by training
Mental illness can affect pilots too! The stigma attached to mental illness needs to be removed in order for people to talk more freely. With this stigma still in place, it tends to discourage people from acknowledging their problems and can prevent them from seeking out the help they need. Obviously, following this path can be detrimental to their health problems and this can also create potential safety hazards with regards to their work.
During the pandemic, countless aviation workers have suffered tremendously. Many have lost their jobs as a result, some have even had to face their homes or cars being repossessed once their incomes have been taken away from them. Such actions may cause your mental health to suffer and this is why we should encourage people to come forward, to have frank and honest conversations. Nobody has to face these challenges on their own, help is available from the moment you reach out.
We need to erase the stigma and help people to help themselves. It’s normal to feel anxious in the current climate, if you feel this way then reach out. Let’s raise awareness and start the discussion today!