Pictured above is Alaska Airlines Pilot, Joseph Emerson
This 7-part series focuses on both the relationship between Employee Assistance Programs and employee mental health as well as the use of psychedelics to treat mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.
On October, 22, 2023, the last day of the annual EAP conference I was attending, l flew home out of Portland Airport on Alaska Airlines. Later, that same day, at that same airport, on that same airline* a pilot named Joseph Emerson was hitching a ride on a flight heading to San Francisco. Like pilots often do, he was “deadheading” or occupying an extra seat in the cockpit. Not long after takeoff, he suddenly stood up and pulled a lever that shut the power off to both engines. Luckily the two pilots who were actually flying the plane, were able to wrestle Mr. Emerson away from those controls, turn the power back on and return the plane safely back to Portland for an unplanned emergency landing.
When it arrived at the airport, Mr. Emerson was escorted off the plane by police officers and charged with 83 counts of attempted murder. One count for each passenger and crew member on the plane.
I was following this story for two reasons: 1. If we had taken a later flight, we might have been on that plane and 2., Turns out Mr. Emerson was dealing with a mental health crisis that might have been helped by the very same counselors who were attending the EAP conference in that same city on that same day.
A few weeks later though, when the jailed pilot’s story became public, Emerson’s need for EAP assistance became even more apparent.
One thing you learn when you attend an EAP conference and mingle with hundreds of EAP counselors is that there are union EAP’s and then there is everyone else. If you ask me, these union Reps are an entirely different breed of EAP. The current president of EAPA is a union rep. These folks typically work their way up through union jobs and at some point, get the training they need to move into EAP as an entirely new profession while still working with those same union fellow workers they’ve worked with their entire career.
In other words, they have the same CEAP credentials that other EAP counselors have but (it seems to me) they are union people first and counselors second. As opposed to the folks who come to EAP through their backgrounds as counselors first, EAPs second. Airline pilots are union workers. (Emerson’s Union Association ALPA, is prominently displayed on the Lanyard he wears in the above photo.) These union workers have their own EAPs and these EAPs are usually internal EAPS. Internal EAPS work within the organization and or within the Union and have a detailed understanding of exactly what their clients who are seeking counseling are going through. External EAPs usually work for an entirely separate organization, and while skilled at counseling, know far less about the specific challenges facing a worker in a specific occupation.
My belief is that Mr. Emerson might have been helped enormously by talking to an INTERNAL (union) EAP who would have had intimate knowledge of the kinds of challenges facing an Airline Pilot in this situation. And as far as the mental health of airline pilots is concerned, I’d call the unique dilemma that Emerson faced: The surprising secret nobody knows when it comes to treating Airline Pilots for depression.
In the next installment we’ll talk about the extenuating circumstances in Mr. Emerson’s case having to do with the unique rules and regulations – handed down by the FAA (Federal Aeronautics Administration) affecting all airline pilots.
*Alaska Airlines has been in the news a lot lately. They are also the airline that lost its “door plug” midflight and had to make an emergency landing as a result.