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Reaching Final Descent: Flight Attendants, Depression & Suicide

(If you are thinking about suicide, please talk to someone right away. You are worth it and you are far from alone. Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK)

I sat on the floor of my living room, in uniform, staring vacantly at the floor in between sobs that took every breath from my body. My mascara dripped like watercolor under my eyes as I felt a wave of heavy despair overcome me. I completely lacked the will to even take another breath at that point.

A barrage of life stresses broke me down and sunk me back into depression, and I’m pleased to say I’m feeling much better now – after being in a very dark place for a couple of days, I found solace in loved ones and in counseling. Depression runs rampant in this industry, and few flight attendants nowadays seem unaffected by it. It’s steadily getting worse, with flight attendant suicides (and attempts) at epidemic levels. No demographic, seniority level or employing airline has been spared. We have the greatest job on earth – why are so many of us at our wits’ end?

We aren’t working

Airlines are doing their best to squeeze profits from wherever they can in order to not significantly raise fares – and one way is by making hours increasingly harder to come by for crews. Listening to talk about attempting to jump onto trips with an open position, it is nearly always described as “Hunger Games.” Raises offered at many carriers appear to be part of a shell game – offering slightly higher wages, and then decreasing available flying. Some airlines have shifted so much flying out of their main bases that career flight attendants who once survived flying routes from, say, New York to Europe now scramble to try and hold much less lucrative short haul domestic flying. But as for me, I can’t complain, despite living hand to mouth; those junior to me are either unable to get a whole schedule worth of trips, or get a reserve schedule – meaning they live on-call and have to hope someone calls in sick. Which few people have been doing.

Get sick – get fired

Are people not calling out sick because we are just remarkably healthy? Hardly. We are exposed to germs in a confined space for hours on end, staying awake at strange hours and putting our bodies through plenty of duress. So, if anything, we are pounding cold medicine and hoping not to have a runny nose while in the aisle with a cart. We work through it because airlines have adopted increasingly more difficult to adhere to attendance policies.

These nearly industry standard sick policies use a point system. The number of points assigned to a sick call depend upon the time of year the event occurs on. Happen to get a nasty flu over Christmas or Thanksgiving, and it could spell the end of your career if you’ve either gotten sick already within the past 12 month period, or if your illness is particularly persistent and could require missing more than one trip. Why not, then, go to the doctor and have the doctor write in a note to excuse your absence as medically necessary?

Because no airline accepts them.

On top of that, you don’t even need to be sick to be affected. Many times, merely being late for work can be marked as an absence. Have you ever left for work just to be caught behind a major accident? Car wouldn’t start? Train was delayed? It makes sense to insist upon punctuality in an industry that relies on it, but it is an industry run by human beings – human beings who have last minute unavoidable emergencies. They shouldn’t be terrifying events.

Work stress is worse than ever

We all saw the “take back the skies!” cell phone video onslaught of last year, in which passengers took to filming flight attendants losing their patience onboard. Thankfully, the media has mostly quit running these out-of-context clips, but a defiant attitude remains as we’re left choosing our battles. We are put in positions to enforce policies that passengers refuse to comply with, only to have our employers apologize to them for our behavior. No more than simple insistence on compliance can land you pleading for your job these days as airlines are all too happy to hand over your job to a shiny, bright (and much lower paid) new hire.

Off the clock loneliness

As I get older, it’s harder to find my place in the world. I have loads of great friends, but they live all over the world. My work friends and I always seem to have opposing schedules. And, just like most airline employees, my non-airline friendships have faded as it’s assumed I’m never around. Invitations stop coming, the phone stops ringing. Life goes on and after a while it’s hard to know where you fit into your own life.

I moved to a town not far from where I grew up, but I don’t have many local friends anymore. My job is far away, so I don’t have a way to meet many people, and making new friends at nearly 40 years old is an awkward undertaking – more so than dating. I’m not sure if it’s going to get better or worse as time progresses.

We are increasingly stressed, sick, lonely. Luckily I have found that my employee assistance plan provides wonderful mental health benefits that I have begun taking advantage of, and I am hoping that mental health care is more accessible to others in my position. But something more than a band-aid of therapy needs to happen in this industry. We need a human approach to policies that we work under, and more support for doing the job we are paid to do. It is a wonderful start to offer therapy that can save lives, and we need to act immediately to stop the suicide epidemic we are facing. The first step is to understand why it’s happening.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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8 Comments
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MC120955 March 19, 2019

I was terminated after my points exceeded the limit not to mention I had 2 heart attacks with in months of each other instead of helping me with recovery they chose to terminate me with a life threatening illness....treated like a piece of garbage....the airline decided to terminate me ....I became very depressed and became suicidal in the weeks after my termination....how demeaning to treat a employee of over 14 years....I couldn’t cope with anything after my termination thinking I wasn’t worthy of any happiness.......well guess what Jetblue you didn’t win...I sought out help I won I have my life back ....you will not break me....Remember management and upper management Karma knows no favoritism....

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Shane Mchav September 20, 2018

Great article. We can thank low cost/no frills airlines for making life much worse for everyone employed with traditionally carriers. Many CEOs think bottom line (revenue, profit, share price and dividends). Air travel is the same as greyhound travel. At least on a train, one can walk around. It's definitely a tough life for F/As

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POatParker September 20, 2018

Flights attendants feel this way because CEO's like the uncustomer-centric Douglas Parker, have long ago crossed the line of human dignity, toward his employees and especially his customers! FA's catch the brunt of the customer's frustrations! The sooner people like Parker leave the industry, the better for everyone! Hopefully, then the industry can place the customer first. Then industry employees will enjoy their jobs again! Happy customers = happy employees = bigger profits! Pissed off customer = pissed off employees = low profits in the long run! Didn't these idiot CEO's learn this in business school? Did they even attend business school? (rhetorical)

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BlueSkys September 20, 2018

As a Captain for a major airline, I have always appreciated the F/A's that have served with me onboard. I understand how difficult their job can be at times. Anytime we deal with the public. life can sometimes be harsh and unfair. The public has no understanding just what all the F/A's job includes. They see them serving drinks and/or food from time to time and think that it is a pretty easy job considering what they get paid and the benefits of flying anywhere in the world for free. IOW, the public just doesn't get it. I wish all of the F/A's peace and please understand that those of us on the flight deck appreciate your efforts 100%. So, don't do something that those of us around you would regret. Talk to a close friend, parent, or a psychologist. Please don't do the unthinkable. Many of us would miss you and I am sure your parents, siblings and friends would also suffer.

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nyc10036 September 20, 2018

Love the reflective article! I'm a scientist (as in "I do science to earn a living"), and the issues raised by Amanda are both fascinating and disconcerting at the same time. This appears to be a profession-wide problem, so I just searched for scholarly research on the topic. Interestingly (and unfortunately), compared to other professions (incl. pilots!), there has been very, VERY little systematic effort to look into the psychological well-being of FAs. Aside from the general lack of research, there ostensibly are issues with the quality/depth/extent/coverage/foci of the research out there (e.g., strictly emphasizing the on-the-job stress or physical health at the exclusion of overall "life stresses"--such as stress associated w/ financial concerns, etc.--and issues outside of work that tend to be commonly shared by FAs, etc.). On a side note, these types of studies have been conducted extensively with individuals in other female-typical professions, such as nursing, k-12 teaching, etc. I hope this topic will be brought to the attention of psychological researchers, so more could be done to explore the lives of FAs and develop the necessary intervention efforts. Of course, ahem, the travel industry is in the perfect position to provide the funding for such research!