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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mental Turmoil and the Pilot

"Off the Record Q & A with a Local A.M.E."

DR. Larry

Last week you spoke of distraction and the holidays. Despite the holidays, what about the distraction of airline life—Mergers, acquisitions, pay cuts, furloughs, seniority loss, loss of pensions…the list goes on. Does an AME have the ability to assess the mental health of a pilot in mental turmoil? I know that pilots can now take Prozac, but is that a long-term solution or should they take themselves off the flight line and sort out the problems. Nothing will change externally; it must be an internal solution. What’s the best way to get rid of the anger that airline life didn’t turn out like we’d planned?

Dr. Larry:

Karlene, there will always be financial issues which come up at work, pulling at our pockets, hearts and egos. It's not unique to the airline industry. Look at the economy and the unemployment rate the past couple of years and it's easy to see how these challenges affect everyone to varying degrees. Hundreds of books and theories have been put forward regarding why these issues affect some people more than others and it's beyond the scope of this post to review those reasons.

What matters is having tools in our personal toolbox to use which can pull us out of the pits when issues affect us in ways that inhibit our motivation, our joy to live and our ability to interact with others. Sometimes the pit can be so deep that our best tools aren't enough. In those situations, medications which help the neuro-chemical imbalance in our brains like Prozac or St. John's Wort, may be beneficial.

It's challenging as an AME to assess the mental health of pilots. Pilots tend to be on their best behavior when visiting their AME for fear of being grounded. They’ll avoid emotional conversation and put on their best face. They open up and asked for help only when they are ready to deal with the issues, not unlike the majority of people. Combined with the fear of losing one's income or joy and is easy to understand why emotions are stuffed. In this unhealthy scenario, action only becomes viable when a crisis mode is reached, and much like buying a car when we have to, it’s not the best time for logical and non-emotional reactions.

I don't believe there is one best way to displace anger that works for everyone. Talk therapy with a friend or counselor, is not always necessary but can be extremely helpful more often than not.

Without understanding the root cause for the anger, the intense feelings are likely to continue. Removing oneself from the cause via a low-cost vacation, sabbatical, or period of sick days can lower the burn rate.

Whatever hostilities are present are likely to be enhanced without exercise and rest as we previously discussed. Foods high in carbohydrates, refined sugars and diet sodas can affect our hormones in negative ways as well. The tools we need help us change what we can rather than what we cannot. In the end, anger is a defensive reaction. Preparing an offensive strategy in both mind and body, we can weather the onslaught of those inevitable challenges which will continue to come at us on a regular basis.

To your good health!

Dr. Larry


  1. This seems like excellent advice. There are no easy answers, and this is a problem for so many people in tough economic times. Scary when it's your airplane pilot!. But also when it's your bus driver or the guy in the next car on the highway. Coping strategies seem key. How do we get people comfortable with knowing and doing that?

  2. Motivation and joy, I love that. Excellent advice! I wish things weren't so tough right now, but with those two things in our tool box Dr. Larry is right, we can make it.

  3. Thank you ladies for your comments. Yes... great advice and we can make it!


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