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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/14/12

Chronic Sleep Problems: Why Pilot Insomnia Leads to Psychosis.

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A recent ABC New story on Clayton Osborn, the pilot who apparently suffered a psychotic break while flying a jet blue airliner has reportedly not been charged criminally for the incident.

What the news story didn't cover is what lead up to Mr. Osborn's temporary psychotic break, and how many more people in the airline industry are dangerously close to having this kind of breakdown themselves.


(Michael Schumacher/Amarillo Globe-News/AP Photo)

Here's potentially what happens. Pilots, and all flight crew personnel are given schedules that allow for ample rest between shifts, but due to radical and on-going jet lag, not having a normal healthy circadian rhythm and sleep architecture simply does not allow for getting the restorative rest needed to conduct oneself like a professional. This condition, which doesn't yet have a name, is progressive, chronic and potentially deadly, not just for the sufferer, but for everyone else on-board. Luckily, Mr. Osborn was tackled and subdued by a passenger. Sadly, for other travelers on other flights, they may not be so fortunate.

There is also a giant game of the emperors new cloths happening  between the airlines, pilots and flight crews. No one is willing to reveal whats glaringly apparent: Pilots, like medical doctors, are above reproach. Their egos, for lack of a better term, are immune to the criticism needed to keep them from veering of the reservation. These guys are worshiped in and out of the industry. Its very hard to reach out for help when your perceived as this invincible. And not surprisingly, flight attendants are suffering the same sleep deprivation fate, so calling out a pilot on his bizarre behavior can and does have retributive consequences. So between a management in complete denial of the problem from a sleep science perspective, and flight crews and pilots covering each others butts and sharing each others Ambien, nothing changes.

To try to articulate what it's like being in jet lag hell is not easy--but lets try. You are never quite awake and never exactly sleep. There's this insomnia/purgatory/limbo state that's a lot like being stuck in a Salvadore Dali painting. Short term memory ceases to function. Everything, and I mean everything takes on a foggy haze and decision making is lost in the fun house. Interestingly, Dali was said to keep himself deliberately awake for five to six days until psychosis set in. Then he would sketch, lay the foundation of this next painting and then sleep for 48 hours straight. It's also a know fact Dali hated to fly.

There are no easy answers to the sleep-deprived pilot dilemma, but some suggestions are in order:

Management should try their level best to keep pilot and crew roughly within the flight paths of the same time zones. This will allow for a reasonably stable circadian cycle that the brain can count on to sleep deeply.

Drug test for sleeping pills. Sedative hypnotics like Ambien and Lunesta don't provide for any real and deep sleep. Airline management would do well to read the latest scientific research out of San Diego State University showing that taking as little as 18 sleeping pills per year has a fourfold increase of premature death, particularity due to heart problems. The big airlines have invested a lot into their pilots. Sleep medications are their biggest insurance liability.

Look into non-drug insomnia treatments like neurofeedback, also known as brainwave biofeedback. There are at-home clinics that would allow pilots and other flight crew to do their treatments in the privacy of their own hotel room or their main residences. This treatment also has a history for relieving stress and anxiety at it's source within the brain itself.

Create programs that encourage and reward pilots and flight attendants to team together with empathic outreach. Remove the punitive stick and fatten the carrot, so to speak and watch them begin helping each other.

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David A. Mayen serves as founder and CEO of the Sleep Recovery Centers. He is an EEG Spectum Intl. Graduate and holds certifications in advanced neurofeedback,neuro-anatomy and neurophysiology, psycho-pharmacology as well as alpha theta training (more...)
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