Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Psychedelics and Employee Assistance Programs:  How to avoid a crash landing. Part 3

Psychedelics and Employee Assistance Programs: How to avoid a crash landing. Part 3

by James Porter February 29, 2024

Above photo: 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.


In parts 1 and 2, I wrote about the case of Joseph Emerson the Alaska Airlines pilot, who after consuming psychedelic mushrooms, was arrested and charged with 83 counts of attempted murder after he attempted to shut off the fuel to the engines on a plane he was flying out of Portland, Oregon. That event happened to have occurred on the same day I flew out of Portland, returning from an EAP national conference that I attend every year.

There are surprising parallels between the work that EAP counselors do, and the treatment that Joseph Emerson needed for depression but didn’t seek out. Why he didn’t seek help is what makes this story so interesting. As a safety precaution ALL Airline Pilots seeking treatment for depression are required by the FAA to stop flying for anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years. This stipulation, designed to prevent a pilot who is feeling suicidal from getting behind the controls of a plane, tends to discourage pilots from being open about seeking treatment or they simply don’t seek treatment at all.

And that’s just one of the parallel lines between these the two stories. One reason why EAPs can be so helpful, is that they oftentimes know the ropes where these kinds of issues are concerned. They can not only provide counseling but also provide advice on how to work within the system. One of the EAPs who I do business with, provides counseling for small town Judges who literally hold court in the communities where they live. As such, they can run the risk of bumping into people at the Supermarket that they’ve previously sentenced to jail time!

Whether it’s counseling for judges or pilots, the fact that an EAP counselor has intimate knowledge of that employee’s particular field can have a significant impact on the quality of the advice offered. Usually, this kind of personalized advice comes from INTERNAL EAPs not external. As I explained in Part 2, Internal EAPS operate within the same company or union where the employee works. External EAPS have the same certified counselors, but these counselors usually don’t have any intimate knowledge of the profession or the organization where this person works.

In this case, an INTERNAL EAP counseling session with Joseph Emerson might have included a suggestion to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. As any good counselor knows (internal or external), CBT is as effective (and better long term) in treating depression as any pharmaceutical treatment. But the internal EAP would know whether CBT would be less likely to raise the red flags that a prescription for Prozac or Wellbutrin might raise in this case.

No doubt, internal EAPs associated with Airline pilots could have given Mr. Emerson exactly the kind of guidance he needed and possibly prevented what will at the very least be a career ending event for Mr. Emerson (and possibly time spent in jail).

Having attended numerous EAP conferences over the years, I can attest to the fact that EAPs are always looking for the latest trends where treating clients suffering from burnout, addiction, depression, anxiety and stress are concerned. In fact, this past year, I attended a one-day EAP conference on the use of psychedelics for treating a variety of mental health disorders. Again, this is where the storylines between EAP and Mr. Emerson’s mental health crisis converge.  

In part 4-6 of this series, I’ll look at some of the preliminary findings around these new amazing treatments. This trail-blazing approach for treating mental health disorders may provide long-lasting results after just one dose! Ironically the same drugs that may end up putting Mr. Emerson in jail for years, might someday soon be used to get future pilots back on the job much sooner.

James Porter
James Porter