Addressing COVID-19’s Mental Health Toll

Health Watch

By ALPA Staff

In North America, COVID-19 has infected millions and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but its ongoing presence is having more than just a physical impact. Social distancing and lockdowns—along with continued concerns about contracting the disease, job security, and other factors—are affecting the mental health of individuals in both the United States and Canada.

“A lot of people are afraid to leave their homes and may have developed anxieties and depression from concerns about the pandemic and feelings of isolation,” said F/O Ellen Brinks (Delta), ALPA’s Aeromedical Group chair. “Many are spending more time in front of the television or on their personal electronic devices, which could be making matters worse for them.”

Several recent studies support Brinks’s assertions. Among them, a national survey by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health sampled more than 2,000 Canadians and noted that 20 percent reported feelings of loneliness and moderate to severe levels of anxiety, due to concerns about job loss and fear of contracting the virus. Another study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 41 percent of Americans reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition. It’s widely understood that isolation and loneliness can lead to depression and that depression can have a detrimental effect on health.

To help curb these trends, mental health experts recommend staying in touch with family, friends, and others who you rely on for support. Others suggest routinely getting 30 minutes of outdoor exercise. However, these measures may not always be sufficient.

To help adjust to the new realities of pandemic life, a good first step in helping to recognize whether you’re at risk is to honestly acknowledge what you’re experiencing. Have you felt sad for an extended period? Have you noticed a loss of interest in your work or other aspects of life? Has your self-esteem declined? Are these feelings interfering with your concentration, sleep, appetite, energy level, or daily behavior? If your response to any of these questions is “yes,” ALPA can help you get back on track.

“The need for a friendly and supportive peer voice has never been greater,” said F/O Carrie Braun (JetBlue), who leads ALPA’s Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program. “My role as the PPS chair is to ensure that all ALPA members have the resources they need to manage stress effectively so that it doesn’t impact their careers.”

PPS provides a network of pilot volunteers who are available 24/7 to help fellow ALPA members by listening to and discussing issues that are troubling them, including finances, family or relationship difficulties, or any other work or personal matters. PPS volunteers listen and offer confidential, nonjudgmental support. If your airline doesn’t have its own pilot peer support program, ALPA national’s program can be reached at 309-PPS-ALPA (309-777-2572).

“I work closely with the other groups within ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance structure to address these concerns so that members can focus on their responsibilities in the cockpit,” Braun noted.

Other Pilot Assistance programs include Aeromedical, which focuses on medical certification and at-work environmental health issues; the Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP), which addresses pilot stress reactions to accidents or serious incidents; the Human Intervention Motivation Study (HIMS), which responds to alcohol and substance abuse and addiction; Professional Standards, which intervenes in cases of interpersonal conflicts; and Pilot Assistance−Canada, which offers comparable programs for ALPA’s Canadian members.

COVID-19’s prolonged presence, the uncertainty about when the pandemic will end, and the corresponding effects on the economy and job security have resulted in many individuals experiencing depression and anxieties. If left untreated, these conditions can affect a person’s ability to feel, think, and function, which is why it’s so important to recognize the symptoms and seek help. The Association’s PPS and other Pilot Assistance programs stand ready to help ALPA members in need.

Mental Wellness and Medical Certification Questions?

Along with ALPA’s Pilot Peer Support and Pilot Assistance programs, the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, ALPA’s Aeromedical Office, is also available to answer U.S. ALPA members’ health and wellness questions. Call 303-341-4435, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. mountain time, to speak with a physician about medications, treatments, and medical certification. Canadian members with questions can call Canadian Pilot Assistance at 309-777-2572.

This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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