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Getting Help

By Michael Berry, M.D. Federal Air Surgeon
Source: FAA Safety Briefing Jan/Feb 2018

The New Year can bring great expectations but also great pressure. Coming on the heels of the holiday season, combined with shorter days, more darkness, and possibly cold or bad weather, the start of a new year can be extra stressful. Feeling overwhelmed at this time of year is not unusual. In fact, I’d say that not feeling a bit overwhelmed is unusual.

You are not alone. At this time of year, and at other times in our lives, many of us have felt the need to reach out to a member of our personal support system or perhaps a professional. However, due to the stigma associated with any kind of mental health treatment, many of us try to cope with difficult situations on our own instead of seeking help from a counselor or therapist.

So what is the situation for pilots, who need to meet a higher medical fitness standard than the general population?

It’s Okay

Seeing the words “pilot” and “mental health” in the same sentence tends to make people uncomfortable. Most people remember the GermanWings 9525 crash in 2015, an event that caused civil aviation authorities and aerospace medical professionals all over the world to re-examine how they handle issues related to mental health.

Not surprisingly, this level of attention might make pilots reluctant to seek any kind of mental health assistance. This fear isn’t new. We know that some pilots have long believed that they face a choice between being a pilot or getting help. Here’s what I want you to take from this article: Getting the help you need does not prevent you from holding a medical certificate, and help is not automatically disqualifying.

Where to Turn

Whether it’s an acute stress buildup or a more chronic issue, finding someone to talk to can be very helpful. Your first step might be a call to your primary care physician. This provider will be familiar with you and with the resources in your area, and thus able to suggest some good options. If a few sessions with a mental health professional can help you resolve the issue, that’s fine. If you feel it is helpful to regularly see a professional, that’s fine too. In fact, several airlines have even set up Pilot Assistance Programs and peer support groups to help. My point is that seeking help is a good thing.

What if I Need More?

If your personal situation requires more than just talking with a professional, please understand that you are not automatically disqualified. While the details — specific to each airman — are beyond the scope of this article, we want you to know that we have established methods for dealing with conditions that require medication.

As you probably know, we began allowing the use of certain antidepressants in 2010. This is part of a broader effort to allow pilots to seek help while maintaining the safety of the National Airspace System (NAS). For a number of once disqualifying conditions, there now is a path to certification.

Common Cause

As I noted earlier, there are times many of us will need help. Though the information in this article may not be relevant to you, it could be relevant to a friend or hangar mate. I encourage you to share this information with those who need it. Perhaps just knowing that talking to a professional is not a situation that needs to be reported would encourage that person to get help. The priority for everyone involved in the NAS is safety, and being both physically and mentally healthy is a big part of that. As a reminder, follow the recommended IMSAFE pre-flight personal checklist:

I – Illness

M – Medication

S – Stress

A – Alcohol

F – Fatigue

E – Emotion

The “S” and the “E” refer exactly to what I have been saying — assess your stress level and emotional response before flying and get help when necessary. And when appropriate, do not fly.