Prioritising mental health in pilots is the need of the hour

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The Second Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress saw active participation from the medical aviation community

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Published: Thu 7 Apr 2022, 12:23 PM

With the aviation industry back on the path to recovery, top aviation medicine experts are urging airline companies to prioritise the mental health of employees. Mental health issues in pilots and the post-covid threats on operations staff were among the key topics discussed at the Second Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress organised by Burjeel Hospital, Dubai, a unit of VPS Healthcare. The two-day event, held under the patronage of the General Civil Aviation Authority of the UAE, saw healthcare professionals and experts discuss the latest developments in aviation medicine.

Impact of the pandemic

Working in the aviation industry comes with specific health-related challenges. The long work hours, erratic sleep patterns, and circadian rhythm disruption can cause fatigue, mood changes, anxiety, etc. Medical experts believe the pandemic and the subsequent crisis in the airline industry have had a profound impact on aviation employees' physical and mental health. The psychological stressors during Covid-19 included job insecurity, pilot proficiency, financial concerns, fear of contracting Covid-19, etc. Experts assert that the pandemic has affected the cognitive abilities of pilots like situational awareness, working memory, concentration, reaction time, multitasking, etc.

Dr Edma Naddaf, aviation psychologist, said: “The pandemic has had a double impact — physical and psychological in aviation employees. We started seeing problems in very competent people. The more confident they were, the more scared they were to appear weak. As many as five in 10 patients were being referred for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment.”

According to Dr Naddaf, while pilots who lost their jobs were under tremendous stress, those who were retained by their employers were equally stressed out. She referred to the case of a patient in his late 30’s who suffered from panic attacks because he felt he was being treated like an outcast during the initial phase of the pandemic. Another pilot was diagnosed with adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood. He was triggered by the changes due to Covid-19 and experienced a lot of insecurities. “In the UAE, we had support from the authorities. We did a lot of things for frontliners like setting up call centres. But I’m not sure if that was the case everywhere."

Stronger support systems

Strengthening mental healthcare systems is the need of the hour. Pilot mental health is a safety risk according to experts at the conference who exhorted healthcare providers to make company-level changes to prioritise the mental health of aviation employees. They suggested solutions including regular workshops on coping strategies, providing a non-judgemental listening ear, setting an incentive for self-reporting, etc. They also advocated a stronger collaboration between aviation medicine and psychology to develop new strategies to mitigate the risk associated with long Covid.

The two-day conference provided an update on all medical specialties related to Aviation Medicine. High-profile speakers including Dr Sally Evans, deputy secretary of the International Academy of Aviation and Space Medicine, participated in the event. Other highlights included a talk by Dr John Chalkley about the physiology of spaceflight, occupational medicine in aviation by Dr Kavita Dhingra, and treatment options with regards to stem cells and biologics for flight crew by Dr Erik Hohmann.

Elaborating on the focus areas of the conference, Dr Hohmann, chairman of the congress, said: “More than 100 aviation and healthcare experts from the Middle East attended the second edition of the conference. We hope the deliberations that took place on the important aspects of mental health, cardiovascular, cancer, and orthopedic risks of the aviation workforce will guide the industry in making considered decisions.”

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