When good pilots go bad - mental health issues in the air
This following piece, written by Tim Davies, a military pilot from the UK, deals with the stigma surrounding mental health issues with pilots. The views expressed are not necessarily those of AeroTime. If you have a story you’d like to share with the aviation community, you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was all going horribly wrong.
I was a military fast jet pilot and I was in a spin, things were coming apart and I didn't know what to do.
I was losing control and all I could think about was the end.
But, as I sat in my office looking out over the airfield, I wished that I was having a real emergency in my aircraft because the one I kept having...
...was in my head.
Imagine that there's an illness in the UK that the government doesn't fully understand. If you are a man, and you catch the disease, it will kill you faster than road accidents, murder and HIV/Aids combined.
It is the number one killer of men under the age of 45, killing more of them than even cancer and heart disease. The government argues that medical progress is slowing down a number of causes of death, yet deaths caused by this disease are at their highest level ever.
When someone dies of it, the news doesn't normally report it. In fact, nobody really talks about it and that only makes the problem worse.
You should be.
The disease is suicide and men, especially those in the 30-44 age bracket, remain more than three times more likely to take their own lives than women, across the UK.
Seventy-five per cent of people who take their own lives have never been diagnosed with a mental health problem and only five per cent of people who suffer from depression go on to commit suicide.
But, the really strange thing is that, in fifty years of research, there is still no way of predicting whether someone will make a suicide attempt any better that just tossing a coin.
On 2 June 2013, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Shaw, 52, deputy commander of the Land Warfare Centre in Warminster, got into his Land Rover to take his gun collection to a gunsmiths, to sell.
But he never arrived.
His wife later found him in the car in a nearby field with a single gunshot wound to the chest - he'd taken his own life.
Team GB snowboarding coach Nelson Pratt, 33, hanged himself in his garage last year.
His friend Marcus Chapman said ‘Nelson was popular, healthy, successful and physically very fit.’
‘It was devastating for everyone. How could someone so outwardly healthy have this happen to them? Men aren’t very good at telling someone how they’re feeling.'
Often it’s those whom seem outwardly fine who are doing the worst - the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
It is believed that hundreds of male suicides could be prevented if men felt able to ask for help when they desperately needed it.
But men often experience a ‘cultural barrier’ when it comes to talking about not being able to cope and are reluctant to seek help.
And it is the recent suicide of Australian Wallabies Player, Dan Vickerman, 37, which was never initially reported as such, that gives us some insight into the thinking of someone in trouble. In an athlete's early life they are supported by a team, players and coaches but as they near their mid-30s, these things go away.
A diminishing support network affects many people at this age and it can signify a very difficult time.
As for a sportsman nearing the end of their career, financial issues start to become very real for many people in their late 30s. Their friends might be starting to get onto the housing ladder, placing pictures of their new home on social media which only highlights an individual's inadequacies in not being able to do the same. Relationships that were hurried into might start to break down at this age especially should children, or the absence of them, be a factor.
Having built a couple of decades of career capital up to this point, work pressures start to become real and often a decision has to be made as to whether you go down the promotion route or devote time to the family.
And a lot of 'life events' start to happen as you head into your 40s.
Parents get sick and might die, you start to realise that you might just not be able to change the world and that maybe you are in a job that you hate but it pays the mortgage.
And people get divorced which, for men, increases the risk of suicide three-fold. The average age of divorce for men being 45.
Lieutenant Colonel Shaw was a 'genial and jovial' man but had become depressed and withdrawn in the weeks leading up to his death.
His experiences in the first Gulf War and Kosovo had led to him being traumatised and he was sent home. He had been deemed unsuitable for front line duties ever since.
He became worried about his future after retirement from the army in three years time and his ability to provide for his family. He had told colleagues that he would have left the army if it had not been for the school fees he had to pay for his three children - twins aged 14 and a ten year old.
'This all seems to coincide with army work pressures through staff cutbacks or at least a failure to replace staff who had left in what could be considered an appropriate time frame,' the coroner said.
Shaw wasn't suited to an office job and his boss was placing heavy work pressure upon him. He also had relationship issues which all appear to have chipped away at his confidence.
The result was an overwhelming loss of self esteem which resulted in a downward spiral of unhappiness, mental health decline and anxiety.
I recently heard of a psychiatric team who were asked by a high profile company to come and give a talk on suicide prevention. When the company told them that they had gathered all of their new recruits into the main office, the team told them to start again.
'Fetch us everyone over 30, especially the men.' they said.
Men feel a pressure to be a winner which is only encouraged by the media. We feel that we should be strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness. We must appear in control of ourselves and our lives at all times.
As men age we are often no longer the centre of the family or job as a new child or younger employee comes along. Men have embraced an individualism, a survivor complex where we feel that we can go it alone and don't need the support of others. We have so shunned relationships with other men that we resort to consumption to create excitement; we spend many hours on Amazon or eBay just looking for things to buy.
Often a combination of these things can push an otherwise strong man into depression and ultimately suicide.
If we were to regress back to the Paleolithic era where man's sole aim was to survive, we'd see that, what occupied us in those times were things with tangible value. Building a cave house, collecting wood for the fire, hunting the buffalo, avoiding the Sabre Tooth-Tiger attack and making babies.
Not much texting or email back then!
But, if we were to break down exactly why we were doing the things we were doing, whilst building the human race on the plains of Africa over 2 million years ago, some interesting things appear.
We were designed to be dissatisfied and this is important as it meant that we had to be constantly looking out for the next opportunity else we'd lose our competitive edge. If we were to have ever felt that we had ‘enough’ we might have become complacent and we would have been vulnerable to someone stealing our cave, food or woman. In pre-historic times, this would have probably been the end of us; there being no ‘civilisation’ meant that you wouldn't be able to survive outside of a group.
It is only in the last 1% of human existence that we have not had to battle everyday just to stay alive, to be fed and find protection; our instinctive need to ‘get more’ creates this persistent state of dissatisfaction.
Move on a few million years and we think that a life of continual happiness is achievable but this is just not possible, we're just not built that way.
What we really need is a meaning to our existence or a purpose but often what men have is an emptiness, a vacuum that we try to fill. In his book, 'Man's Search for Meaning', the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, says that one of the most conspicuous signs of an existential vacuum in our society is boredom.
The automation of things has left us with little to do and, in turn, this makes many men feel redundant with the subsequent loss of self-esteem.
And where did the community go?
It went online.
And there's this thing about the online world because when you go there you see how successful everyone else is because, well, people just don't put bad things about themselves online.
A couple of years ago, when the RAF was struggling to build a flying training squadron that I was on, I was leading a 12 man team of highly professional instructors who were very, very tired.
One afternoon, after numerous failed attempts to try and get a social occasion organised for the squadron, I snapped. I ordered all of my team to stop flying by lunchtime and I told them that we were going to have a meeting that afternoon and that they absolutely had to be there.
It was a beautifully sunny day with the calmest Irish Sea that we had seen for months.
I told them that the location of the meeting was the local beach and they were to bring swimming gear.
There was the inevitable cursing and the expected sighs of 'But I've got work to do!' but, as it was an order, they had to turn up.
I spoke to the squadron programmers and told them that my men had an afternoon of 'SOPs' to go over which was accepted. SOPs were Squadron Operational Procedures and a document that my team owned, but what I had in store for them was a different kind of SOP.
So when my team arrived at the beach and saw the 12 surf boards that I had rented, all nicely lined up against a wall, the 'Stand On Paddleboard' meeting, soon got underway.
It was my way of saying thank you for all the hard work they were putting in and, as we all guiltily floated about with our new found freedom, I could feel a sense of calm descending over our small flotilla. For the first time in years, we spoke about issues at work and problems at home and it felt like we were doing something that we used to do but had somehow been forgotten...
There's not much time for talking anymore what with today’s boss' promotion prospects based on output figures rather than their employee's happiness.
People don't tend to go to the pub anymore either, in the military people often live off-base and cheap widescreen TVs and the internet mean that more people would rather retire to their rooms than socialise in the mess bars. This means that people don't 'decompress' after work but, instead, take the workday's problems home with them.
When I returned from Afghanistan in 2011 it was with an Army unit and we were all taken via Cyprus to 'decompress'. This takes a couple of days and makes sure that we all return with clean uniform and a few nights sleep. They literally put you on a beach with some paddle boats and water-wings and leave you there all day. It's supposed to give you time to do nothing, to just talk about your experiences and to relax before heading home. You can't use phones, computers or social media - you just eat sandwiches and mess about on blow-up dolphins.
I loved it.
I ended up paddling out on a small kayak towards north Africa before a rescue boat came and found me.
'Sir, have you looked behind you recently?' said the young RAF Corporal, as he leant over the side to hand me a bottle of water.
As I turned around, the southern Cypriot coastline was but a distant horizon. I'd totally 'switched off' and had just kept 'paddling.'
Although the experience was beneficial to me, it was to signify the start of some very dark years. My father had died the month previously and six weeks later I would be sent to investigate the death of a colleague; during that time I would witness the death of another.
As the months away from home mounted up, my marriage would suffer significant strain. My alcohol use increased and the pressure of holding it altogether whilst standing up a new flying squadron, would eventually push me into therapy.
One of the more common ways us men deal with stress, anxiety or depression is by self-medicating with alcohol and often drugs. We go to the pub and drink at home which helps to block out and hide how we feel. We drink and talk and initially feel better but very soon the drugs and alcohol can end up as big a problem as the mental problems were in the first place.
During my dark times post-2012 I had a sense that nothing was fun or worth doing anymore. I was constantly tired but would keep dragging myself to the squadron to go flying. Until I found help, I thought this was normal. Indeed, I thought I was doing the right thing to still be able to function at such a high level whilst feeling this way.
I was wrong, but I didn't know it because in the military we don't often speak about mental health.
Often it's just easier to say 'I'm fine, thank you.'
In the military, when we get strange thoughts, we think we can solve it ourselves. We are quite resilient people and don't always trust the medical services. I once spoke to a military doctor about seeking counselling a year or so before I eventually did and was told, ‘if you go for counselling, I'll have to stop you flying’.
The doctor was wrong. They don't stop you flying in all but the most extreme of cases, but it does highlight the fear that many aircrew and other military persons have with seeking mental health therapies.
If we look at Clinical Depression, it really only happens to strong people and where do we often find strong people - in the military, emergency services and overstretched public sector industries.
These industries demand that its personnel are reliable, have a strong sense of right and wrong, are responsible and put the needs of others before their own. They demonstrate strength but are also understanding and their actions are often validated by the opinions of others.
I’ve seen squadrons stressed to the point at which they are about to fail. I’ve raised my concerns to command and even, in one case, felt it necessary to go outside of the squadron hierarchy in order to ensure the safety of my team.
This doesn’t do your career much good but does allow you to sleep at night.
The one thing that constantly surprises me is how far strong people can be stressed before they do eventually break. It takes some doing but they will eventually break and this is because a strong person just doesn’t know how to say ‘no’.
The military, public sector and big businesses love these people.
If we were to give the set of stresses to someone who is weak or lazy, they will quickly give up, so they will never get stressed enough to become ill. A strong person, however, will react to these pressures by constantly trying to overcome them and it is often ‘just one more task’ that becomes the 'straw that breaks the camel's back' and leads them down the road of depression.
This is often why people continue to not seek help even when they are feeling down. They attempt to read and analyse their way out of their problems, continue to take on more at work and knuckle down and get on with the job!
Yeah, I did that.
They see depression as a weakness that won't affect them and this can often be something that a boss who lacks empathy will capitalise on.
Depression is often characterised by perfectionism, mental rigidity, self-blame, an enhanced sense of responsibility, emotional avoidance, binary or black and white thinking and an intolerance for ambiguity. This can all describe military life perfectly and is often why service personnel are labelled with depression upon leaving the military.
When it militarises a civilian as they enter the services, the military needs to recognise that it has a responsibility to change them back again once they leave. Having already gone through the leaving process once, I can tell you that it is sadly lacking in this area.
So, what can men do?
Stop trying to be comic book heroes for a start.
I found, through help, that when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at, change.
There is a line of thought that says that depression is a way of our mind telling us to slow down and that we should hibernate for a while to recover from being so overloaded.
After all, if we were attacked by a Sabre-Tooted Tiger, we’d go and hide in our cave for a few days to heal - we need to recognise that it is just OK to take some time out to recover.
The truth is that, as men, we are dicks.
We think we can cope on our own but, in reality, we need to talk things through with somebody.
What I find useful in maintaining a positive outlook is having a defined purpose in life. Looking after your diet, exercise, meditation, getting some counselling, establishing a routine, goals, dreams or finding a passion can also all help.
I got lucky.
Eventually a fellow officer reached out to me, recognising that I was as much an alpha male as he was, he made my problem his own.
He told me of the issues he was having and how he'd seen this great guy a couple of hours drive away.
He recommended that I went too, if not just to get off a busy squadron that was going through a very rough phase and causing some of us anxiety issues.
He normalised my problem and made it acceptable for me to seek help.
And that's why in 2012 I found myself at the Military Department of Community Mental Health in Telford seeing a psychologist.
I got help and I got better.
So maybe we should stop telling men to 'man up.' Talk to our buddies, let them know that they don't have to keep 'achieving' and that it is OK to just be 'OK'.
And maybe we should question our mates further when they say 'I'm fine' - delve a little deeper. Ask them how they really are because, who knows, it might be the best possible chance we have of keeping them with us on their worst possible day.