While on a cross-country flight recently, I witnessed a woman with mental illness, who was clearly in crisis, try to enter the cockpit of an airplane. The chain of events that led to this started in the back of the airplane, where I was sitting. This gave me a clear vantage point to witness a young woman walk from the front of the plane to the back lavatory and attempt to enter. She struggled with the door for a moment and the flight attended let her know the bathroom was occupied and she needed to wait her turn.
The woman, clearly confused, responded that no one was in there and the door was just stuck. I looked up and could see the anxiety in her eyes, the confusion and fear radiated off her as clear as day to someone, like me, who has experienced panic and anxiety attacks before. The flight attendant let her know that the front lavatory was open. The woman started to cry, gasp for air, and whimper unintelligibly, but headed for the front of the airplane.
Mental Illness Can Cause Confusion
This confusion, coupled with desperation and fear, can lead to frightening outcomes. When she reached the front, she started to grab various handles in an attempt to gain entry to the bathroom. One of those handles was the cockpit door.
Since 9/11, people aren’t allowed to form lines at the front lavatory, let alone try to open the cockpit door. It is a federal crime and the flight attendant told her to stop immediately. She refused, saying the door was stuck and she just needed to use the restroom. The flight attendant immediately stood between her and the cockpit door and gently pushed her away from the door. The woman yelled, cried, and slumped to the aisle floor. People began whispering quickly, confusion set in, and I realized this young woman was suffering from more than a panic attack. She was clearly delusional.
Keeping Mental Illness at Bay
While some staff was defusing the situation in the front of the plane, another flight attendant came back to try to find a seat in the back to reseat the woman. Seeing this as my opportunity, I introduced myself as someone who works in mental health and offered my assistance, which was gladly accepted. Much of her story was clearly not grounded in reality. She spoke of an ex-boyfriend she claimed she lived with for two years, but could produce no photos of them together, despite having several hundred pictures on her iPhone and Facebook pages. No one knew where she was, and no one was expecting her. She cried and apologized for her behavior often, saying she was bad. I comforted her and told her she was not bad; she was sick. There is a world of difference. Listening to her speak made it clear this was a woman who was sick and needed help.
The remaining four hours were uneventful. I reassured her that illness today does not mean wellness is impossible tomorrow. Through listening to her, I was reasonably certain her parents lived in the destination city, and that is what prompted her to choose to fly there, of all the available choices. Even in her delusional state, she wanted her parents.
Once we landed, I stayed with her through the questioning that happened on the ground and, along with the incredible airline staff, helped her find her father and ensure she wasn’t left to wander the airport alone without help. She was safe, and the part of her story involving me was over.
It Takes a Mentally Ill Person to Help a Mentally Ill Person
I am a peer supporter, a person living with mental illness who has taken the classes and passed the appropriate tests to provide certain services and support to others living with mental illness. No one could have provided better services to that woman that day. Not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. It isn’t to say they couldn’t have done an equal job, but certainly not a better job.
In those moments, what she needed was compassion and understanding, but, more importantly, she needed someone she trusted quickly. Peer support isn’t about excusing behavior, it is about understanding and commiserating over shared experiences. She trusted me quickly because I was, in many regards, the same as she. While my “boarded an airplane without warning” moments are hopefully in the past, they still happened. We were able to make a quick connection and build rapport.
At 35,000 feet in the air, on a plane with 144 passengers and a four-person flight crew, we didn’t need anything other than to defuse the situation quickly, for the safety of my new friend as well as everyone else.
Article originally appeared on Psych Central as "Mental Illness Crisis at 35,000 Feet."