I’m going to stick my neck out today. I’m going to talk about something I’ve been avoiding for certain political and professional reasons for some time now. A topic that is close to my heart.
As it turns out, aircrew are extremely reluctant to talk about mental health. On the rare occasions I’ve brought it up, I’ve seen Captains visibly squirm in their seats. They will find any excuse to talk about something else.
Anything but the elephant in the cockpit.
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t simply an inability (or unwillingness) to talk about it. Aircrew are also more unlikely to get the help they need because of the stigma attached – because of what it might mean for their careers.
I recall talking to one Captain who was clearly distressed. It was evident that the last few years had taken its toll.
I asked him if he’d talked to a company doctor to get some time off. I told him I’d done so and was afforded 3 months stress leave.
But he refused. He said that no airline would hire him if they found that on his record. He said it would be career suicide.
The hard reality is, if certain airlines get whiff that you have suffered from any kind of mental health issue in the past (regardless as to the whether that issue remains in the past) they will bring the shutters down hard. It seems only super humans will do. Preferably robots, in fact.
But here’s the thing that really gets me.
Many of these airlines appear to turn a blind eye within their own organisations. It’s as if they don’t want to know about it. As if they would rather their aircrew suffered in silence. Despite asking them, in some cases, to work under extremely demanding conditions.
To give you a glaring example, I’m sure many of you will have read about the draconian covid measures the Hong Kong government has imposed over the past couple of years. In the story of animal farm, you can think of the aircrew as the rats. We were seen as the least equal of all the animals. Consequently our lives were placed on the frontline in government’s war to maintain zero covid.
What that has meant is hard to put into words. It’s been soul destroying. Collectively we have endured not years, but hundreds of years of quarantine. I’ve had more swabs shoved down my throat than I can count. Funnily enough one captain I flew with did. He was on PCR test number 234 and counting!
Yet, that wouldn’t have been as bad were it not for the severe punishment the government (and company) threatened if we failed to comply. The simple act of leavening our hotel room could mean 6 months in prison. We weren’t even allowed outside to get some exercise (a right, I might add, even prisoners are extended).
Needless to say these measures placed the company between a rock and an impossible place. The only way to keep the show on the road was to enact something known as closed loop patterns. This meant that crew who “signed up” would sometimes spend upwards of 8 weeks locked in a hotel room between flights. This was before doing their mandatory 2-3 weeks of quarantine.
Only then were they allowed to feel sunlight again.
What made this particular sinister was the new productivity based contract our company forced us to sign towards the end of 2020. It meant if we didn’t fly above a certain threshold each month our pay was significantly reduced. Of course, we don’t have any control over productivity. We can only fly the flights that are rostered.
I was pregnant with my second child when I was forced onto this new contract. Part of the decision to have a second was based on the money I used to make. At any rate, spending anywhere between 5 to 10 weeks away from my family was out of the question. Thankfully we had money in the bank. We could and did take the finical hit.
But they were many who couldn’t. And what do you do when your choices are to sacrifice your own mental and physical wellbeing or provide for your family?
Of course, you sacrifice yourself.
That’s what the entire aircrew body have done to help maintain the government’s zero covid policy over the past two years. To provide for their families. To keep life going in Hong Kong.
I’m proud to say we did. We gave Hong Kong – effectively – a zero covid existence for over a year. But, eventually, the inevitable happened. A number of crew members broke their quarantine order and caught covid. On investigation it was found they had left their hotel room on a layover.
They were sacked, fined, prosecuted… Instead of simply punishing the offenders, they clamped down on whole crew body. At a time we’d desperately hoped our restrictions would ease. Not only that, we were vilified by many corners of the media. There were even reports of members of the public spitting on aircrew.
Many people have asked me why I left my job. Many people were surprised by the decision I made. Despite everything, despite all of the above, it was, without a doubt, the single hardest decision I’ve ever made.
The job is deeply meaningful to me. I’m proud to say I’ve been part of a rich aviation heritage. To have flown for the same company my father flew for over 20 years. I’m more proud to say I flew as his first officer a number of times, including his last flight before retirement.
I desperately wanted to go the distance – to become a captain for the same airline. To come so close but turn away at the last minute is no small thing. Even after the decision was made, after months of torturing myself, I continued to have crippling doubts. I would get this feeling in the pit of my stomach like I’d been shot. It was awful.
But then, a few weeks ago, those doubts were shattered.
I learned a college of mine had committed suicide. He leapt from the balcony of his high rise apartment. A young British man, aged just 31 years. I didn’t know him well – I flew with him, I think, only a handful of times – but it hit me hard.
I felt angry, sad and ashamed.
Angry that it had got to this point. That the authorities and the media so shamelessly ignored the elephant in the cockpit. But also ashamed that maybe in my own silence – in my own avoidance of the elephant over the years – I had contributed to a culture that may have factored in his death.
In the days and weeks following I couldn’t help but wonder, could that have been me?
Just before the pandemic I sought help for own my long term issues with depression. I regard it as one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. I believe it gave my the strength to get through the last couple years – even if I didn’t get through unscathed.
But what if I hadn’t?
Of course, there are different types and severities of depression. You can’t judge it with the stroke of one brush. But depression can spiral. I’ve never had suicidal thoughts but I appreciate, at least, how the mind could get there. How it could dig a torturous hole within itself. One it finds impossible to escape from.
This is why I believe the issue of asking for and getting help is so important. Making people feel they can – without judgement or repercussion – speak up and do so. Although most airlines offer programs that allow aircrew to seek help anonymously, so long crew as believe that getting help is a career ender, the industry has a significant problem.
While Hong Kong may be an extreme example, its illustrative of how far certain airlines/governing bodies are willing to neglect their duty of care.
The truth is aviators are some of the keenest people I know. They have a passion that most people only ever dream of finding. But that passion has been highjacked. It’s been used by the industry to move the goalposts repeatedly. Because they know that pilots will do just about anything to get their hands on the controls of a jet.
To live the so-called dream.
We often joke about living that dream having been up all night. Once upon time that was mine. But I’ve come to realise there is only so much loss of sleep – only so much soul crushing isolation – you can put up with before you lose the ability to dream altogether.
If you ignore the elephant for too long, eventually it will crush you.
It’s why I left the cockpit altogether.