Crisis at 30,000 Feet

by Linda Rosenberg, President and CEO, National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare

By now many of you may have heard about the crisis that took place on board Jet Blue Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas on March 27, 2012. The co-pilot noticed the pilot acting in a confused and erratic manner and managed to lock him out of the cockpit. The pilot’s behavior became even more erratic to the point where he had to be forcibly subdued by passengers. Local police are calling it a panic attack, the FAA describes it as a medical emergency, but it is too soon to tell exactly what caused this crisis at 30,000 feet.

What we do know is that preparation and training can help us manage such a crisis wherever it takes place and offer support to someone to avoid a crisis in the first place. In fact, you are more likely to come in contact with someone having an emotional crisis than someone having a heart
attack or choking on a piece of food.

The reality is that panic attacks can be the result of a diagnosable and treatable mental illness, and mental illnesses are real and common, just like physical illnesses. People who experience panic attacks may display signs of intense fear and stress that may be frightening to others, but the attack itself is often a physical reaction to stress or worry they themselves are

Recent studies by the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration show that one in five Americans will experience a mental illness in any given year, or more than 50 million of us each year. In addition, workplace stress increases the risk of developing a mental illness, and a recent CBS News poll showed that commercial airline pilots have one of the most stressful jobs of those surveyed. With 732 million passengers boarding flights just this year, and more than 377,000 employees involved in commercial aviation in the United States alone, experiencing a mental health crisis in the air is a possibility we should all be prepared for.

While we still don’t know for sure what the JetBlue pilot was experiencing, there is a way for people to take proactive steps to head off crises and deescalate crisis situations.

Mental Health First Aid is a novel public education program that teaches people to recognize and respond to people with mental health problems or in a mental health crisis. The innovative program teaches people a five-step process to assess a situation, select and implement appropriate interventions, and help a person in crisis or developing the signs and symptoms of mental illness. The program equips people to provide initial help until appropriate professional,
peer, or family support can be engaged. Participants also learn about the risk factors and warning signs of specific illnesses such as anxiety, depression, psychosis, and addiction.

The program has not only expanded people’s knowledge of mental illnesses and their treatments, but it has helped to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by helping people understand and accept mental illness as a medical condition.

More than 50,000 people nationwide are now certified in Mental Health First Aid – from a wide range of professionals to lay people who just want to be ready to help.

Mental Health First Aid does not teach participants to diagnose or treat mental illness, but it does teach one how to recognize some signs and symptoms of mental illness, provide comfort, and if appropriate, refer someone to services. Wouldn’t you feel more comfortable on your next flight knowing that the person in the seat next to you was trained to help if you experience a panic attack?

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