At Resilient Pilot, we are passionate about breaking down the stigma surrounding wellbeing and mental health, particularly across the aviation industry, where it has long been an important, yet taboo, topic. 

In general, people are often willing to discuss physical health. If we sustain an injury, we are more likely to talk about it. But when it comes to difficult mental or emotional experiences,  it can be much harder to share.  So, why is that?

One of the common misconceptions when discussing mental health and wellbeing is that the act of talking might make the situation worse. Certainly, there are some things that you would be better off not saying. However, talking to someone who does not judge and genuinely wants to listen and help can have a positive impact.  As humans we are social beings, and one of our basic needs is for a sense of belonging and connection with others.  By talking about things that are concerning us, we can gain greater insight into an issue and move towards resolving it. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Need

Maslow's Hierarchy of Need

So, it’s safe to talk about wellbeing and mental health. But how do we start?  

You could ask someone directly how they are feeling but, let’s be honest, how many times has someone asked how you are for you to reply “I’m fine”, even when you’ve got a lot on your mind and you are finding things a bit tough?

In some societies ‘how are you?’ or ‘alright?’ have become more of a greeting than an inquiry into someone’s current physical, emotional or mental state, and often we give a straightforward automatic response to that.  If someone gives you a stock “fine,” when you first ask, why not follow up with “everything’s fine?”.  This invites the person to check in with how they really feel and lets them know that you are genuinely interested. It also establishes an opportunity for the person to share anything they would like to.

Another option is to start the conversation with a bit of self-disclosure. It may be that you are finding things difficult and want to talk.  It’s worth checking in and asking yourself some questions. “How am I?”, “what emotions are around for me today?”, “is there anything on my mind?”

By starting with your internal dialogue and raising your own awareness, it can make it easier to be more open about how you’re doing. You may not want to dive straight in and say, “I’m struggling today” and that is understandable. But you could raise the topic by saying: “I read this article the other day and it got me thinking…”  This could be a gentler way to initiate a conversation with a trusted colleague, friend or relative.

Diversity, stigma and changing the conversation

Aviation is a truly international industry and having colleagues from a variety of cultures and backgrounds is something to be celebrated. It is also something that needs to be considered when approaching the topic of mental health and wellbeing. In some cultures, whether at a national, company, or even familial level, there can exist a pressure to keep worries, feelings or problems to yourself or to not discuss them outside of the cultural community.  It is important to recognise this and acknowledge that it may be difficult for some people to discuss certain topics. Do your best to respect someone’s cultural beliefs, but also allow space for them to seek support.

One thing you may want to explore is if a person is able to draw support from within their cultural setting. Ask if they have access to support in their family, airline or maybe even a religious community. If that is not an option, ask if they are able to find support elsewhere, perhaps from an impartial and confidential organisation such as Resilient Pilot. Diversity is one of the best things about this industry and it need not be a barrier to talking about wellbeing and mental health. The opposite should be true.

Another thing that can prevent people from talking about mental health is the fear that they are not qualified to handle the response or they do not want to appear like they are interfering. Quite often, the first step in someone acknowledging there is an issue is someone else reaching out to them to ask if they're ok. 

People rarely expect friends, family and colleagues to have all the answers, so try not to worry about having to solve any problems yourself.  Sometimes it just takes a listening ear from someone who genuinely cares to help a person.  If you think that someone may benefit from some professional help, you can gently ask if they've thought about talking to a doctor, AME, counsellor or support service.  Check if your airline has a peer support programme or access to mental health and wellbeing support. Pointing this out may go a long way to helping someone access additional support.  If you or someone you know has had a positive experience of using such services, then why not share these stories? It could help your colleague see that it’s fine to talk to someone else.

So, we’ve explored some of the potential barriers to starting a conversation around wellbeing and mental health. We know it is an important topic and that there’s a long way to go to normalise these conversations and reduce stigma within the industry. But airlines and regulators are now putting policies and recommendations in place to facilitate support for our workforce.  The next step is for us as members of the industry and aviation community to start speaking up and sharing our experiences. We need to normalise them.

Are you still feeling hesitant to begin that conversation? 

Ask yourself why that may be.  Perhaps you could even use that hesitancy to start talking to someone.  After all, it only takes one person to start a conversation.

Please visit our website resilientpilot.com to learn more. If you need someone to talk to, we can help. Our volunteer mentors provide a discreet, confidential and free opportunity to start a safe conversation.

If there is a relevant topic you’d like us to cover in a future column, please let us know supported@resilientpilot.com

Stay resilient!