The Depressed Pilot

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 50 seconds.

You’re a passenger on an airliner. You sit down, and look around you. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by people responsible for your life. You want to know that you can trust them, that they are all there, present. You expect their training to be top-notch, and that they care. What happens if any of these people have a mental disorder? The flight attendant could be struggling with mental illness. Maybe it’s the guy sitting next to you. Perhaps the first officer, or even the captain.

Your concerns are valid. Safety is the pillar of the aviation industry. Many work very hard to keep it standing strong for all lives involved in the industry, whether as a customer or an employee. Your pilots especially want you to make it from point A to point B with zero discomfort or doubts that it will happen.

Ground zero is this. A significant amount of people don’t like the idea of depression, and they don’t trust people with this disorder to safely fly an aircraft. A study conducted on my stomping grounds, in the province of Alberta in Canada, conducted a survey of 3047 adults. The study found that 45% of people considered people with depression to be unpredictable. 20% considered them dangerous [1]. It’s pretty clear: the public does not view depression favorably.

We know from the research that depression is everywhere. Research has shown us unequivocally that the levels in critical professions such as in medicine and the military will reflect the numbers found in the general population. In my online studies, I have found that airline pilots are no more different in this regard. Research done by Alexander C. Wu et al. found that 13.5% of the 1430 airline pilots they surveyed met the criteria for depression. Even more saddening and shocking, 4.1% reported having recent suicidal thoughts [2]. Somewhere, we are dropping the ball miserably, and this affects most of all the public, whose safety we have to have in mind.

This brings me to what I’d like to highlight next. What happens to pilots who admit to their aviation doctors that they are struggling with depression? I can give you an accurate snapshot of the process.

First, bye-bye medical. You cannot fly in Canada if you currently have depression. Your depressive symptoms must be alleviated, the method of which you achieve that is up to you and your doctor. Then the process from here on out requires patience, savings in the bank, filling out forms, meeting up with the family doctor a few times, as well as appointments with psychologists. To deny that it is intimidating does all a great disservice.

Throughout this, you have no actual guarantee that you will be cleared to fly again. If you are given the privilege of getting your license back, now have to deal with the stigma of being pilot on medication. A person with a mental illness. It is suddenly clear why Transport Canada has found that the number of pilots being treated for depression does not at all reflect the stats on the number of pilots flying with it, untreated. There is an incredible amount of people out there scared to seek help. And they are deep in an industry that is stressful, that wrecks havoc on your circadian rhythm, and requires top performance at all times.

Is the answer to erect more barriers to people in the industry from flying if they have depression? Transport Canada has discussed this very issue, acknowledging that the barriers already put in place for depressed aviators has done very little but push those with the illness to resort to self-medication, some even purchasing their drugs online to avoid detection from regulatory bodies. So just by simply following the stats and literature on the topic, the answer does not seem to be, “lets make it harder or impossible for those with depression to fly,” but rather, “we know people are hiding it. Let’s help them, and make the skies a better place for everyone to be.”

Lucky for us all, stigma and discrimination does not equal reality.

Addressing people’s concerns about what perceived risks they are taking by getting on an airplane is important too. As we learned above, a good part of the public considers those with depression to be unpredictable and dangerous. These two traits in particular are those that you would obviously NOT want in the guy operating your next flight.

Lucky for us all, stigma and discrimination does not equal reality. No data exists to support the conclusion that people with depression are more likely than the next guy to commit a violent act involving others. In fact, only a very few specific mental disorders are associated with any kind of risk of violence, depression NOT being on that list [3]. The media’s portrayal of those with mental illness, especially depression given how relatively common it is, is far from reality and is even further from fair. These negative portrayals that we see and hear from our colleagues, friends, and from the news only serve to create a incredibly unfounded bias against those recovering from depression. And it’s one that doesn’t even need to exist!


MY FINAL THOUGHTS. Pilots with depression should not fly.

THE PILOTS WITH TREATED, IN REMISSION DEPRESSION SHOULD BE THE ONES HAPPILY FLYING.

I’m pleased that my thinking on this is in harmony with Transport Canada’s stance on aviators and depression. Unavoidable bureaucracy aside, it IS possible in Canada to fly on SSRIs. Just takes a little bit of time, patience, and the magic of honesty.

Unfortunately, to take that step feels impossible for many. I know I’ve been told (under complete confidence) by a few fellow aviators that they feel trapped, like as though they have no choice but to suffer in silence. These poor souls are refusing to take any steps that they may need to take to address their mental health, in fear of the many perceived consequences.

The change begins with changing public perception. A little bit of elbow grease and we can get there. It starts with people such as yourself, dear reader. Sharing and speaking openly about depression, de-stigmatizing it, and getting it into people’s heads that a pilot with treated depression is absolutely as safe as the next guy are awesome ways to start remodeling how we think of the condition. The world is going to be a better place for it!

Part two of how change happens begins with the pilots themselves. Friends, don’t fly with an illness. Just don’t do it to yourself. I have depression, and it was a monster. I KILLED IT THOUGH. It’s POSSIBLE. Reach out to a therapist (therapy is just as effective as medication!), or your family doctor, and tell them if you are struggling. It’s bloody terrifying to do that, to be candid and open and honest, but man did it feel right.

I’m well on my way to getting my medical all cleared up, and soon I will be joining my friends in the sky once again. You can do it too! Absolutely!


Sources and some short quotes for context (bolding mine):

[1] Data were collected in a probability sampled population-based survey of 3047 adults in Alberta, Canada… Over 45% of participants considered that people with depression were unpredictable. Over 20% reported that people with depression were dangerous. However, the percentages did not differ by levels of depression literacy and whether having a family/friend with depression.

[1] Wang, J., & Lai, D. (2008). The relationship between mental health literacy, personal contacts and personal stigma against depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 110(1-2), 191-196. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2008.01.005

[2] …193 (13.5%) of 1430 pilots who reported working as an airline pilot in the last seven days at time of survey, met depression threshold–PHQ-9 total score ≥ 10. Seventy-five participants (4.1%) reported having suicidal thoughts within the past two weeks. We found a significant trend in proportions of depression at higher levels of use of sleep-aid medication (trend test z = 6.74, p < 0.001) and among those experiencing sexual harassment (z = 3.18, p = 0.001) or verbal harassment (z = 6.13, p < 0.001).

[2] Wu, A.C., Donnelly-McLay, D., Weisskopf, M.G. et al. Airplane pilot mental health and suicidal thoughts: a cross-sectional descriptive study via anonymous web-based survey. Environ Health 15, 121 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-016-0200-6

[3] Mental illness can explain only a very small fraction of general violence… Only a few specific mental disorders can be associated with violence, most commonly first-episode psychosis, and schizophrenia with positive symptoms such as hallucinations and command delusions. The most common diagnosis in the USA, depression, is not associated with violence except in the rare cases in which psychosis is presented.

[3] Ahonen L. (2019) The Association Between Mental Illness and Violence. In: Violence and Mental Illness. SpringerBriefs in Criminology. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18750-7_4

The real, no-bullshit reason why I became a pilot, part 2

An old family friend, and someone actually once very close to my little brother, reached out to me. She asked if I wanted to go for a plane ride.

This is part two of my story on why I actually became a pilot, complete with photos at the end. For returning readers, thank you for reading part 1. For all those who reached out and let me know how my tale has impacted you, your words greatly touched me and gave me the motivation to keep on writing.

If you’re new here, welcome. Read part 1 at this link. Warning: it’s sad. This part is by far the happier part, so try and make it this far once more.

And so it begins…

You’ll remember from the previous half of this story that, at this point in my life, I was in a deeply bad place. I was zombie-ing my way through my university studies, avoiding anything social, and especially not doing anything to heal from my loss. Each day felt like a painful, pointless blur.

So when someone meaningful to my family reached out and offered to take me up for a joy ride in a C172, I was floored. I could not comprehend sitting behind the controls of the same type of aircraft that my brother’s life ended in. Flying again as an expression of joy, and not grief, was a distant, foreign concept. I was not ready, and did not want to be ready. Yet, I accepted the offer.

To this day I am actually not positive about why I agreed to the flight. It might have been a thoughtless choice, out of impulse, as many of my decisions around that time period seemed to be. Maybe a deeper feeling was at play beneath the surface. Whatever it was, I’ll likely never fully understand. That single, simple “OK,” changed my life.

The flight was stunning. The clouds held a special warm glow for me, their shape swirling up in shapes I had never witnessed before. We had the GoPro rolling on this morning, a third witness to the majesty of flight before us. Circling over our home airport, I joked about spicing the flight up, maybe doing a loop. My pilot laughed, but wouldn’t oblige. Dang it, I thought.

And just like that, I was having fun. Laughing AND enjoying myself for the first time in years! I had never have felt more closer to Heaven and the souls of our dearly departed. It was a very moving moment for me, although complicated emotionally.

Before long, the flight was over. The plane’s wheels softly touched down once more onto the pavement, my heart and soul left above. My mind was racing with the decision it had made. I wanted to fly again, and to carry on what my brother had started. I would become a private pilot like he had dreamed of becoming.

On an interesting and slightly unrelated side note: it was also on this day that I met my future life partner and husband Chirag. This day just held so much good for me and I didn’t even know it at it time.

With my parent’s very generous financial backing, and their blessing, I began flight lessons in earnest. Some flights were very, very hard for me. There were times where my imagination would wander off to my brother’s last moments, and I could not do much but cry. On solo flights, I would stubbornly head out west, circling over his crash site mindlessly.

Other flights were an absolute joy. Spins for example became a happy obsession of mine. I wouldn’t want to finish a lesson without a few! Other lessons I found incredibly frustrating (diversions, ugh!), but all flights held meaning for me. Each flight was a leap closer to my brother Lorne’s dream.

I crossed the emotional mountain range in 2015, finally earning my private pilot’s license. Our private pilot’s license, for it felt like Lorne’s achievement too.

I was immensely grateful for all of the trials and tribulations I had undergone, as the end result was a calmer, happier, and more adaptable pilot. There wasn’t, and still isn’t, too much that can rattle me save for running out of coffee before takeoff. Flying holds deep meaning for me. It brings me closer to Heaven, fuels my own self-confidence, fills me with wonder, and is carrying on the dream of someone I very much hold dear. I think I’ll always be a part of this world of aviation, I cannot imagine it any other way.

Thanks for reading everyone – and God bless. Enjoy the photos at the end!

xx

Shavs

The real, no-bullshit reason why I became a pilot, part 1

(Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 30 seconds)

That is the most common question you’ll hear as an aviator. “So, why did you get into flying?” “What made you decide to become a pilot?”

I have my generic, canned answer, and I have my true answer. You are going to come to know the true answer.

Truth be told, I have not shared with many my journey to becoming a pilot. The road was not particularly easy or pleasant, and maybe that makes it more worthwhile to share. I’d like to add my voice to the multitude out there to show you that people from all culturals, traumas, and struggles can become a pilot. You do not need to have the perfect life or have amassed incredible wealth.


My Dad had once worked as a pilot in his younger years, and was trying very hard to pass down his love of aviation to his teenage kids, my younger brother and myself. Truth be told, I wasn’t too interested at first. I had school to worry about, and it didn’t align with my career goals. However, when my little brother started flying, it didn’t take long for me to become jealous. It looked cool, fun, and challenging. I wanted to get in on the fun too! And so, in Grade 12 of highschool, I began flying C152s and working on my private pilot’s license.

I was a lost soul in highschool. Self-conscious and depressed, in my mind I has nothing that made me special. Flying changed that. For the first time in my life, I was special. I was going to be a pilot. I was unique! I had something that maybe, just maybe, I would be good at and enjoy the rest of my life.

However, this feeling of bliss was not going to make its home with me for very long. Throughout my life, my parents had struggled with unresolved anger problems, and finally it was coming to a head. Shortly after I had graduated Grade 12, one small mistake culminated into a violent confrontation, and I got out. I left my home.

A newly graduated girl with no home, no money, and no education, had no business dreaming about being a pilot. I stomped on that dream, putting it far away for the time being. It was time for me to focus on getting back on my feet.

Misfortune was not done with my family and I just quite yet. For the second time, tragedy came around and reared it’s ugly, raw maw. My little brother, my perfectionist, my hilarious little annoying-as-heck but you love them all the same younger sibling, the only human who shared some traumatic experiences with me and understood my struggles, went missing. I got a call while on a mini vacation, and immediately made my way home. Time slowed.

Search and Rescue, as well as a group of civilian volunteers, searched by foot and air. These people are honest to God angels, and I am touched to this day how many pilots volunteered to scour the rough Canadian country for any sign of the wreckage.

And I say wreckage, for my brother went missing while flight training.

It felt like much, much longer, but as far as days and hours go, it wasn’t long before the crash site containing what once was the funniest and most remarkable person in the world to me was found. And that’s it, he was gone. No more would we reminisce about flying aircraft on Flight Simulator together as kids, or talk about how we used to play in the wild woods of Northern BC. God had ‘im now, and I was madder than hell.

The next few years are numb. I stopped wearing any colour, I was in and out of therapy. I hated people, I hated pilots, I hated airplanes, airports and flight schools. I hated enjoying myself and having fun, betraying the memory of my little brother by daring to live. Life stopped, and I would not let it go on any further.

Even so, winter does not last forever, and neither did mine. My spring eventually came, and the first metaphorical blossom on my tree was one, singular event.

An old family friend, and someone actually once very close to my little brother, reached out to me. She asked if I wanted to go for a plane ride.


To be continued…

xx

Shavs 

How do I “make it” in aviation?

                                                     Flying the Metro 3

This is the question on everyone’s mind after the grind of flight school. Students and instructors alike will have different ideas and advice on how to get your foot into the door in a difficult and ever-changing industry. Oftentimes, you’re operating on rumors, and there’s no way to verify any of the information that you’re receiving.

My biggest and baddest advice I can give you, as someone currently IN the industry is this:

Get to know people in the industry, in particular people CURRENTLY at the companies you are interested in. Disregard any rumors, tips, or heresy you hear from your instructors, other students, your uncle, and your flying buddy at the airpark. I’m not knocking their advice, I’m sure they are well-informed and have many things to say, but this is how you hone in and really focus on the meat and potatoes of the information out there.

Some good questions to ask pilots are:

  • What are your likes and dislikes at the company?

  • How long have you been with the company for?

  • What is the starting pay like?

  • How are upgrades and pay increases handled?

  • How easy is it to collaborate with and contact management?

  • Did you feel like your training prepared you for your first day on the line?


Of course this is not a comprehensive list by any means. Modify and add to it as you see fit. But whatever you do, don’t skip this step. Don’t desperately rush off to some operation in Ontario totally in the blind, or you might be in for a nasty surprise.

And this ties nicely into my second life tip for new pilots. It’s by far the best secret to getting a sweet job.

Ready?

GET TO KNOW EVERYONE, AND ANYONE. Make friends in the industry. Be curious, be friendly. Ask questions, and offer to help out around the airport. If you’re at flight school, get to know every student, instructor, and manager. In particular for instructors, get to know the people you are teaching, maybe even consider joining the local flying club. Do not underestimate the power of networking. Networking is KEY in this industry.

Your buddy who is a part-time owner of so-and-so’s plane will know of a guy looking to hire someone on his jet. Alright, maybe you won’t get that lucky right off the bat, but you know what I mean. You’ve heard talk of how small the industry is, so leverage that to your advantage. Be authentic, and be yourself. Put yourself out there. The more people you connect with, the more opportunities WILL open up, and it only will be a matter time before the golden opportunity comes knocking at your door.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this gives new students and fresh commercial pilots alike hope for getting that first gig. The jobs are out there, and you will find one! Keep on being positive, hopeful, and working hard. It’s only a matter of time before your break comes too.


♡,
Shavonne

Welcome to @soontobesonex’s flying blog!

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First post! 🙌

So why is this here? What is this website?

This is my zone, my place to discuss and write about all things flying. You’ve seen my Instagram, which is a wonderful community and medium for sharing photos and stories, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to take the discussion a little further. I also thought it would be amazing to have a space where I can direct people interested in learning to fly, as well as those looking to move to a country like Canada and get involved in aviation here.

Welcome to the zone, my personal little slice of aviation. Feel free to connect with me in my posts via commenting, and don’t forget to subscribe by email for updates on latest posts. 🙂

– Shavonne