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Pilots let's talk: Aircraft worker opens up about battle with depression

An aircraft maintenance engineer passed on a powerful message about his battle with depression at an aviation summit this week in Gatineau, Que.: Don't be afraid to raise your hand and say you need help.

Transport Canada's 'next frontier' is helping smaller airlines offer peer support programs

Stuart McAulay, an aircraft maintenance engineer, is encouraging others in the industry with mental health issues to seek help early. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

An aircraft maintenance engineer is going public about his battle with depression to encourage Canadian pilots with mental health issues to get help early and avoid what happened to him.

Stuart McAulay, 50, shared his personal story to up to 200 people at a new aviation summit in Gatineau, Que., this week to destigmatize mental health issues in the industry.

He hid the unsettling thoughts running through his mind for more than a decade, he told the crowd. He put up his best front at home for his family and threw himself into work inspecting and fixing planes. 

The longer McAulay held it in, the anguish ate away at him and his problems got worse.

A good 15 years went by before I really got to a point where things were so bad that I couldn't function properly.- Stuart McAulay, 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 said. 

At that point, he started working in the office instead of on planes. 

In 2010, McAulay reached his breaking point. He went on leave from work and found himself alone in an apartment contemplating his life. In that moment he decided not to give up.

Scared and uncertain about what to expect, he checked himself into a hospital.

Now McAulay said he's doing better, uses self care strategies to manage and wants to become the example he didn't have during his toughest years.

Germanwings crash prompts concerns

"I think people are worried that if they come forward they'll be seen as being weak or incapable of doing their job properly," said McAulay. "But really what we're trying to do is get people the help they need sooner rather than later … I waited too long."

In 2015, a co-pilot who hid his mental health problems deliberately downed a Germanwings jet into the French Alps, killing 150 people and raising concerns worldwide about the issue. The tragedy led countries to review how they screen the mental health of pilots.

A deadly Germanwings crash in 2015 prompted safety concerns worldwide and prompted countries to search for cracks in their protocols. (Yves Malenfer/Interior Ministry/AP)

Transport Minister Marc Garneau called this week's summit, the first of its kind in Canada, to talk openly about helping get pilots with mental health issues the support they need.

"Pilots are no different from anybody else," said Garneau. "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."

Air crews shouldn't be afraid they could lose their jobs over seeking help, he said. Pilots hold jobs that very few people can do, and support mechanisms need to be in place for them.

Peer support needed for smaller operators

Canada is one of the countries leading the way because of the number of peer-to-peer support programs offered by major airlines and pilot associations, according to Aedrian Bekker, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Centre for Aviation Psychology.

Bekker flew in from the United Kingdom to speak at the summit and said the problem is that smaller airlines need the same programs.

Aedrian Bekker, co-founder of the Centre for Aviation Psychology, said aviation is one of the most heavily regulated industries and consequently one of the safest. But pilots are humans too, and deal with mental health issues like everyone else. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

"I think the issue and the challenge is, what about the smaller airlines?" said Bekker. "The big thing about peer-to-peer is that you provide confidential support. 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."

What about the smaller airlines?- Aedrian Bekker, co-founder of Centre for Aviation Psychology

The peer-to-peer programs are made up of a pool of pilots trained to talk to fellow workers about any issue they have inside and outside of the cockpit.

It's a safe haven that allows pilots to speak to confidentially. Bekker said it's proven successful because it removes barriers to accessing help — it's like speaking to a friend and is less intimidating to access than a professional.

"The lifestyle of a pilot is so different and unique," said Bekker. "They don't do a 9 to 5 p.m. day.... It's really just an opportunity for them to talk to a colleague who may have experienced something similar or could point them in the right direction."

In some cases, it acts as a launching-off point for patients to access other resources inside airlines and elsewhere. 

Transport Canada's 'next frontier'

Transport Canada is taking note and  plans to work on a solution.

It may mean smaller airlines grouping together to offer peer support, or pilot associations for smaller airlines offering the services. 

"I think we need to do more," said Aaron McCrorie, director general of the aviation safety regulatory framework at Transport Canada.

"We'll be looking at how we can do that. 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. I think that's our next frontier for us."

Transport Canada's Aaron McCrorie said one of the key messages that came out of the summit is the importance of creating a healthy workplace where someone can feel safe and put up their hand to ask for help. (CBC News)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

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