You're in safe hands - when mental illness comes to the rescue
About three years ago I was on shift with the AW139 Search and Rescue/Emergency Medical Services (SAR/EMS) helicopter based at Archerfield in Brisbane, Australia. It was a regular day at work where nothing much was happening until the job phone rang mid-afternoon. A trio were rock climbing and the guide had reportedly fallen over 1,000’ to his death leaving the two novices caught on the rock face unable to go up or down.
We were shortly on our way to the scene about 30 mins flight time away. Thankfully when we located them, they were almost at the top of the 4,500’ peak. Despite this, a hoist recovery of approximately 180’ was required to extract the pair and get them to safety.
The combination of aircraft performance considerations, wind direction, sun position, precarious location of survivors and commensurate necessary (and incredible) actions of Rescue Crew Officer - David Turnbull to safely extract them, made this the most challenging mission I’d undertaken since operations in Afghanistan many years earlier.
It dawned on me after the flight that like me, the Air Crew Officer/Winch Operator – Daren Parsons had his own experience with mental illness some years earlier as well. So, the two crew on board the aircraft with the three lives at the end of wire in their hands, were a couple of guys with well-documented histories of mental illness.
Daren had been hospitalized three times with major depression in previous years. But he’s back in the air flying again and has been for many years. Like me, he wants to transform the conversation around mental illness to show that it does not define us. Indeed, growth from mental illness is not just possible, but very, very real.
In my case, it was about 10 years earlier whilst I was in the Army that I contemplated suicide and had a breakdown, resulting in being grounded and months off work. I’d had a number of deployments to Afghanistan but it wasn’t the rockets or bullets that tore me apart, instead, it was a toxic work culture that I simply was neither prepared or equipped to deal with. It felt like I had shrapnel in my soul.
I didn’t know anyone who had a mental illness and no first-hand knowledge of suicide. (Sadly, two ex-Army pilot colleagues I flew with have since taken their own lives). I saw a psychologist, and it didn’t go well – we really didn’t gel. I didn’t think to see a different one ‘don’t all psych’s have the same tricks and if this one didn’t work, what hope has a different one got?’ I thought at the time.
With ruminations running wild, alcohol-fueled self-medication in full swing, night terrors and a super short fuse I thought I was the only person in the world going through this pain. I didn’t want to be at work. I didn’t want to be at home. I didn’t want to be awake and I didn’t want to be asleep. I didn’t want to be anymore. I didn’t necessarily want to die, but I desperately wanted the pain to stop and felt I had already tried everything else.
And importantly, I didn’t want anyone else to know. Although I had the unit psychologist and doctor’s phone number as they were work colleagues, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the truth when I saw them at work and I couldn’t bring myself to call them either. I was embarrassed, confused, distressed and afraid of work finding out. My mask was on. Tight.
My mask may have been on and my head determined but my body had other plans. It shutdown, convulsing and incoherent.
When I eventually made it back to work after nine months, I had an empathic boss and was functional again however, I carried a feeling of immense shame for ‘allowing’ myself to have contemplated suicide, having a mental illness and letting down all those around me. To top it off, I was labelled as ‘damaged goods’ by other parts of the hierarchy effectively halting my military career in its tracks.
I left the Army, starting my next career in SAR/EMS where I’ve enjoyed a decade across various types and roles including Line Pilot, Check and Training, Flight Instructor/Examiner, Chief Pilot and Director of Operations. All the while continuing my own personal journey of growth. I carried that feeling of absolute shame and failure for years; how I eventually released it will be the topic of a future article.
In talking with countless people about their experiences and mine, I’m firmly of the belief that as we experience the highs and lows of life, that mental illness is normal, manageable and recoverable for the vast majority of people. (Although, it sure doesn’t feel normal when you’re at the depths of despair, managing your wellbeing can be intense and sometimes recovery seems impossible). With the courage to seek help, small consistent daily effort and determination to make tomorrow just a little better than today, experiencing mental illness can give you a far better understanding of yourself and the human condition, lifting you to new heights.
I also know that you’re not alone. 45% of all Australians will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lifetime. 1 in 5 of us will experience a mental disorder in any given 12 month period. And mental illness doesn’t care about your rank, race, gender, education or income. It doesn’t discriminate.
Plenty of others have tread the path you’re on, even if you haven’t heard them talk about it yet. The stigma around mental illness is lifting, albeit slowly. There is life after diagnosis and there’s no question for me about being ill ‘up there’ versus being well ‘down here’. If you need some time to get your wings level again, do it. Your family will thank you for it (and so will you).
This article was published in Issue 2 of Antares: The World of Military Aviation.