Is there an issue with pilot mental health? Many in the industry think so, particularly when it comes to stigmatizing pilots who seek help.
Unsurprisingly, a shock rippled through the aviation industry when Alaska Airlines pilot Joseph Emerson tried to shut down the engines of a Horizon Air E175 in the middle of a flight. At the time he was off-duty, jump-sitting in that cockpit, a common practice for commuting pilots.
This troubling event happened just before a U.S. Congress committee was due to meet, to discuss flight safety. Previously, people expected the main focus of this Congress committee to be Air Traffic Control.
Many see ATC shortages as a key factor in what many describe as a rise in runway incursions and other close calls this year. Determining the seriousness of this problem is quite difficult since some of these events go unreported.
In any case, the Horizon Air/Alaska incident brought pilot mental health to the fore. On the 9th of November, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker announced that the agency would name a pilot mental health committee. The role of this committee will be to examine why pilots avoid reporting such issues today.
National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy added that pilots’ current mental health monitoring system is broken, “…and has been for a really long time”. This is because pilots know that any mention of mental or anxiety issues could ground them for lengthy periods.
The Ugly Side Of Pilot Mental Health
This drives some pilots to self-medicate or seek help away from the aeromedical system, without reporting it. Or (perhaps worse), they may do nothing, letting problems build. ALPA and other pilot unions have been calling for action on this issue for some time. People should feel safe to seek help if they need it.
Both the FAA and NTSB heads, as well as the pilot unions, have pointed out that mental health is dynamic. The pilot community should benefit from strides in mental health care that already benefit the general public.
Unfortunately, this new focus on mental health didn’t benefit Joseph Emerson, the Alaska Airlines pilot. Emerson reportedly refused to speak with a doctor, after his therapist said he may be dealing with depression.
The pilot knew that a prescription of antidepressants would very likely ground him. Then a few days before the incident flight, he took psychedelic mushrooms for the first time, at the suggestion of some friends.
In an interview, the pilot said he believed that during the incident, he thought that everything around him was a hallucination. He tried to pull the engine fire handles in the Embraer 175, to force himself to wake up.
This incident ended without any injuries to anyone. But it became a stark example of how things can go wrong if the pilot community isn’t confident that mental health problems can’t be dealt with directly.