Dr. Larry, reports show that the winter months and the holiday season cause stress for a lot of people—stress that many have a difficult time coping with. Pilots may fly over the moon, but they are not exempt from depression. Especially when so many miss the holidays at home with their families. Relationship problems can ensue when a spouse complains that the other is never home. The pilot (or flight attendant) misses seeing the kids open their gifts each year.
My question is this: How does a pilot identify if they are suffering from depression that may require help? What are the signs, and what should they do? The problem I see is denial of the situation.
Correct! Denial is a big part of the problem, especially for personalities that are solution-driven and built for toughness. As pilots and doctors, we are brainwashed to put aside emotions and fix problems. This requires us to ignore the human factor, which is all fine and dandy so long as it’s about someone else. However, when we’re personally involved, internal conflicts arise, breeding confusion and discontent. Irritability, sadness, sleep disturbances, absences, difficulty concentrating or loss of interest are all manifestations of the conflict within.
As the cycle continues and the gap widens between what we want to do and what we have to do, symptoms escalate to frustration, anger or rage, or complete withdrawal with feelings of hopelessness. All are signs of depression. Sound like union negotiations? At its core, it’s no different than any other area of conflict.
When “the system” inhibits us from expressing our feelings, we become trapped and depression deepens. Hopelessness eliminates our ability to move forward. “What’s the use?” becomes the slogan of the day. Does this need to happen? Absolutely not, which is not to say there won’t be dilemmas to address. How then do we go about preventing the downward spiral which all too often leads to relationship and health issues?
It begins with awareness and acceptance. As with most things, if we don’t recognize a problem exists, then we can’t address it. And what do we call that? Denial! Isn’t this why we are taught to pay attention to our airplane’s instruments? Avoiding reality forces us into the imaginary world where we truly have no control.
Admitting to ourselves we don’t feel right is crucial, even if we don’t know why. It’s important to listen to what others are telling us about ourselves, too. It’s easy to dismiss what we don’t want to hear yet it’s exactly those things we need to address. Ignoring issues doesn’t make them go away.
Over the past couple of decades in both aviation and medicine, conflict resolution has become part of the corporate culture. Prior to this concept when people were afraid to say something, bad things happened. By acknowledging the best outcomes depend on it, we learned how to avert disasters by talking about our concerns in a non-threatening environment. If we can do this for the business, we surely can do this for ourselves, and in fact, we are getting better.
We’ve come a long way. Pilot culture was built around the public’s desire for fearless and take-no-prisoner behavior. There simply wasn’t room for emotion and sensitivity. Depression was a word never uttered in public. Pilots could be grounded for admitting they were dealing with depression. Medication for depression was an absolute disqualifier. Not any longer.
Now, by acknowledging symptoms of the blues or depression exist, we allow ourselves the opportunity to explore and address those very things which bring us down.
Start by making sure the uncomfortable feelings are not due to a metabolic disorder, such as low hormones or thyroid, Vitamin D deficiency or anemia. Get a checkup. Correcting these types of problems can make all the difference in how one deals with the world around them.
Lastly, do you remember the owner’s manual for being a parent? Trick question because there isn’t one and figuring out our emotions is similar. Our challenge is magnified if we didn’t acquire the tools growing up. We can fly by the seat of our pants or ask for assistance and it’s so much easier to learn to fly with instruction. Plenty of well qualified counselors are available to help us understand our reactions to the myriad of challenges we are confronted with. Take advantage of one. Talk about it. Learn new lessons. Go to school on yourself. Take control or the control will be taken from you. For your own peace of mind and body, do TQI (total quality improvement) and don’t put your head in the sand and think it’ll all go away someday. Or sadly, it might.
To your good health,
Postscript: Depression among pilots is common. In a 2006 study by the National Center for Health Statistics, one out of 20 people in the United States suffered from some level of depression. There are over 500,000 active pilots in the United States. When you do the math, you’ll see there are a lot of silent sufferers.
For further information on depression, visit these websites: