If there is one thing aircrew and in particular military aircrew are not good at doing, it is talking about their mental health and feelings towards it!
There is definitely a misnomer out there that as soon as you broach the boundary about mental health that you will be signposted to see a psychiatrist and be grounded indefinitely. I can honestly say that in all my time dealing with mental health in the military, I never came across a situation where there was a knee-jerk reaction to remove anyone from flying, though there were times people were helped out by removing work aspects of their life to allow a quicker recovery whilst dealing with traumatic events.
During my time in the military, I had a number of experiences with mental health from both sides of the fence, and in the spirit of mental health awareness week I thought it would be pertinent to share some of these with you.
The first involved an unusual series of events aligning. Being a qualified Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) team leader, I was once invited to a meeting to help manage a live incident involving RAF personnel, which was large enough to gain national media attention. However, before I could even arrive at the meeting I had the misfortune to witness a road traffic accident. My positioning at the time involved me seeing the incident in slow motion and seeing clear air between the top of a car and the pedestrian involved. This all lead to me making a 999 call to request the police and ambulance services. Luckily for myself, other capable individuals were already dealing with the aftermath of the incident by the time I arrived next to the casualty. Due to this involving military personnel and happening right outside a busy RAF station a TRiM event was requested for this incident too. So within 24 hours I had gone from normal run of the mill life events to dealing with 2 traumatic incidents in quick succession.
Tragically the RTA involved a fatality, and due to me witnessing the incident I was offered help and support to cope with what I had seen. This allowed me to deal with situation before it became an issue which affected my own mental health. This personal experience helped me to go on and help others deal with the even more dramatic large-scale incident that they were involved in, and that I was originally travelling to assist with. I was very pleased to be involved with helping the individuals from this event; mainly due to the difference in the way they all felt immediately after the incident, to then over a period several weeks seeing their state of minds change and improve to a point where they were each coping in their own way. The feedback from one person in particular was that the intervention made a massive difference in their life and that talking about the incident was the main factor that enabled them to get their life back on track without the event having a long-term impact on their wellbeing.
The second experience which really sticks in my mind was a prolonged period of time on operations, where I was managing the interaction between Squadron personnel and the mental health support network available to those on operations. We, as a squadron, experienced several traumatic incidents over a 3 year period – however due to the encouraging and supportive network that we established which enabled personnel to discuss their feelings about these incidents, we managed to avoid anyone being seriously affected as they all developed their own coping strategies.
In each of the examples above, individual people reacted very differently to the initial trauma and throughout the following days and weeks, but there were two commonalities which lead to their recovery – training, and resilience.
Training is one of the many things the military do very well. Military personnel react to situations in a certain way due to the repetitive way they are trained to deal with high workload and stressful situations. Resilience is also a trait of the military – but is something that is required by anyone who is trying to overcome an issue. An individual’s resilience can be affected by many factors; simple things like how well they are eating and sleeping, their baseline level of physical fitness and how much stress they are general under at the time a traumatic event occurs. How expected, or unexpected a traumatic event is also affects resilience, for example it is sometimes easier to deal with bereavement if the person who passes away has been ill and the death is somewhat expected.
It is important to remember that a traumatic situation causes NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events. So it’s far from a weakness asking for, or needing a little extra help when you are dealing with too much. Help from others is what you need to get on top of the situation again, so that you can eventually deal with everything in your own way.
As a well-known phone provider used to say, ”it’s good to talk”, particularly when dealing with mental health issues which may have been brought on as a result of either the accumulated effects of lots of small events or a large unexpected one.