Support urged for pilots struggling with mental health problems

Pilots at small Canadian airlines are being encouraged to open up about their mental health

Support urged for pilots struggling with mental health problems
Speaking at a recent aviation summit in Quebec, Stuart McAulay told 200 people how he struggled with mental health issues by burying himself in his work as an aircraft maintenance engineer.

“A good 15 years went by before I really got to a point where things were so bad that I couldn't function properly,” he told the audience. He started working in the office at that point, but it wasn’t enough. In 2010, he took a leave from work, contemplated his life, and checked himself into a hospital.

McAulay said he’s learned to manage using self-care strategies, and he doesn’t want others to go through tough times like he had to.

“I think people are worried that if they come forward they'll be seen as being weak or incapable,” McAulay told CBC News. “But really what we're trying to do is get people the help they need sooner rather than later.”

Mental health has been a concern among airlines worldwide ever since 2015 when a co-pilot who had hidden his mental problems intentionally crashed a Germanwings jet into the French Alps, killing 150 people.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau organized the summit — the first of its kind in Canada — to open up the discussion about helping pilots with mental health issues get support. “Pilots are no different from anybody else,” he said. “They are subjected to stresses whether they are in the workplace or in their family lives or what have you. And if it's going to affect their performance then we need to be there to support them.”

Aedrian Bekker, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Centre for Aviation Psychology, flew in from the UK to speak at the summit. While he recognized that Canada is among the world’s leaders in offering peer-to-peer support programs within major airlines and pilot associations, he said smaller airlines need them as well.

“The big thing about peer-to-peer is that you provide confidential support,” Bekker said. “If you've got an airline with only half a dozen or 50 pilots, it's quite difficult for them to access somebody ... about a sensitive issue, and that person you may know very well.”

He said peer-to-peer programs, which rely on pilots trained to talk with fellow workers, are successful because they’re less intimidating than talking to a mental health professional. The unique lifestyle of pilots makes it more important to have someone with similar experiences who could point them in the right direction.

Transport Canada is planning to work on a solution, which could entail getting smaller airlines together to offer peer support, or setting up pilot associations to offer the service at smaller airlines.

“It's one thing for a large airline to do this. But we have to make sure that smaller operators also have the same ability to do this,” said Aaron McCrorie, director general of the aviation safety regulatory framework at Transport Canada. “I think that's our next frontier for us.”

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