Last month at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, a tragic incident occurred. It involved a ground-crew worker stealing a turbo-prop passenger plane, taking off, and flying it intentionally to his own death. Initially he performed aerial acrobatics that made it seem like he was doing this as a joyride—a joyride accompanied by F-15 fighter jets scrambled out of a nearby airbase. People followed along as the flight unfolded, viewing through prompts on social media. We on the ground wondered if this was just a stunt; we imagined a movie version of this playing out, Leo DiCaprio starring as the ersatz pilot. Soon, however, transmissions from the cockpit made clear this pilot’s intention. Most poignant was when he apologized for disappointing those around him.
Unlike most of my blogposts that explore suicide from the more personal viewpoint, I wish to make this post about our society, our attitudes and our policies. The case I described is alarmingly not the first case of suicide by plane. Thankfully, in this instance, there was only one life lost. In other cases of alleged suicides, hundreds of passengers have lost their lives from the actions of a single person (I say alleged, because in some cases we may possibly never know the true intentions of the pilot(s) involved; but there are definitely examples of airline crashes in which murder-suicide by pilot is thought to be the main cause).
Now I’m not bringing up these examples to put the fear of flying into all of you. Rather these examples illustrate an extreme example of an unspoken societal view of mental illness. We have a hard enough time discussing mental health due to old attitudes, old norms, and old stigmas. But if you add on to it this layer—this layer where someone with mental illness might be in a position of power, control, or authority—then suddenly the hushed furtive mentions about mental illness become expressions of alarm.
It is a fair reaction. The last thing you want to learn about your pilot, your bus driver, or yes, your doctor, is that they are performing their duties while impaired. This calls into question the definition of “impaired”. Does just having a mental illness constitute impairment? Actually, it depends on the mental illness. Bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and psychosis can constitute an automatic denial of certification according to the FAA’s guidelines. But depression does not explicitly disqualify a pilot, nor does anxiety, nor panic attack disorder. Pilots cannot be on any mood altering medications (including anti-depressants); however pilots successfully treated with medications, then cleared for flight by evaluation, can fly once again.
And being able to be treated is a good thing, too…or so you'd think.
A study of over 1800 pilots surveyed anonymously with questionnaires regarding mental health found approximately 12% of respondents meeting a threshold for clinical depression. An alarming 4.1% claimed thoughts of suicide. These were active pilots, who neither sought nor received treatment for their mental illness. The reasons might be numerous, but obviously the fear of losing their reputations, their licenses, and their livelihoods must figure into it. Even if there is a possibility of gaining back your flight status after successful treatment, the interruptions and the accompanying stigma would be enough to have pilots want to keep their illness secret.
So the possibility for treatment of pilots exists, but rarely gets used. Pilots instead admit to flying with depression. Doctors practice medicine with depression. Any number of professionals in critical or high-stakes positions may be suffering in silence.
"...But ultimately, we go back to our old ways. Normals go back to being Normals. Crazies go back into hiding..."
Why mention this? Do I have a solution? Nope. But I do know that we talk about talking about it. A lot. It’s the core of many suicide prevention messages: Talk about it. But as a society we still just do not. We make a good showing of it: public service announcements, heartfelt pleas from celebrities, and social media memes telling you to Talk About IT. But ultimately, we go back to our old ways. Normals go back to being Normals. Crazies go back into hiding.
Maybe bringing it to a level that affects everybody, will start a conversation. Maybe understanding that even CEO’s, politicians, and people in power, they too might be affected by people with mental illness any time they board a plane or a train or what not…maybe understanding no matter who you are, your life is touched by people with mental illness…maybe this understanding is what starts us talking about it. And when EVERYBODY, not just loved ones but everybody starts talking about it, then it no longer has to hide in the shadows.
I suppose it’s a pipe dream to think I can change all of society just by telling people to talk about mental illness so it stops being so taboo. But I’ve only got this drum so I’m going to beat it. As your captain from the flight deck might say: “You’re free to talk around the cabin.”