Crash landing: How do airplane accidents affect survivors’ mental health?

WATCH: The Transportation Safety Board has wrapped up its investigation into the AC 624 crash and the airport is anxious to get back to normal. But as Ross Lord reports, the lawsuits are just beginning.

The Airbus A320 smacked into an antenna array, breaking off the plane’s main landing gear. The plane touched down short of the runway, skidding along asphalt for about 1,100 feet as its two engines, part of a wing, and the nose cone ripped off in the hard landing.

On the weekend, Air Canada flight 624 crash landed at Stanfield International Airport in Enfield, near Halifax. There were 133 passengers and five crew members on board. Twenty-five people were taken to hospital to treat mostly minor injuries.

READ MORE: Landing gear ripped off when Air Canada flight 624 hit antenna array

Passengers who were left unscathed could be shaken from the dramatic end to the flight. The research on trauma post-airplane accident is wide and varied – but scientists say it’s hard to study because these incidents can end up with fatalities, and it isn’t easy tracking down enough survivors who are willing to talk about their feelings following the trauma.

Story continues below advertisement

How trauma affects us

“Trauma from a plane crash is special. It isn’t a mugging or assault or a car crash where the person may not have time to reflect on their life, but with plane crashes, there’s a period where people have their lives flash before their eyes. They may be re-evaluating things in that moment,” Dr. Oren Amitay, a Toronto-based registered psychologist and Ryerson University instructor, said.

“We all carry defences to protect ourselves but during those times, in near death, those defences go down. A traumatic event is one of the few things that can lead to a personality change. It’s a sudden powerful shift in the way you see yourself, the world, and your role in it,” he explained.

READ MORE: Remember where you were on 9/11? Study suggests memory may be distorted

In the 1980s, several studies examining the mental health of survivors of airplane accidents were conducted. In 1985, before a Boeing 737 even took off from Manchester International Airport, a fire broke out and killed 54 people on board. Eighty survived, but as the fire spread inside the aircraft, passengers were confused, grew anxious and ended up screaming hysterically. Others were dazed, and even followed orders that seemed counter-intuitive – the group was told to remain in their seats with their seat belts on, according to Robert Bor and Todd Hubbard, authors of Aviation Mental Health.

Story continues below advertisement

Upon their rescue, researchers say the group was compelled to talk about what happened, potentially as a coping mechanism. Others sought a scapegoat – someone they could blame for incident. The latter ended up developing paranoid attitudes, specifically about those who advised them to stay in their seats. Some victims even grappled with survivors’ guilt.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

How lack of control plays into trauma

It makes sense to Amitay. One of our innate needs is to obtain a sense of control over our environments.

“There’s nothing scarier in the world than feeling like you have no control over your own personal safety. When you lose that sense of security, it’s destabilizing. When you lose the belief that you have a role in your own destiny and protecting yourself, potentially anything can seem like a danger to you,” Amitay said.

In 1999 research, New York scientists considered the health of 15 plane crash survivors and turned up with positive findings for the victims. They had better mental health than a control group that flew often but hadn’t encountered danger in the air. But the optimistic outlook only existed in people who felt like they were in control of their situation during the crash.

READ MORE: PTSD and memory – Canadian docs study survivors on plane near-disaster

“Flight crew survivors who believed they had control over events that may have led to or caused the crash reported less distress,” the researchers told the BBC 16 years ago.

Story continues below advertisement

“And passenger survivors who felt they had control over how they acted or what they said or did in reaction to the crash itself also reported less distress,” they explained.

How we deal with stressors is just as crucial as the trauma at hand, Amitay says. If survivors emphasize the terror and loss of control, feelings of anxiety could follow. If they focus on their survival and are resilient, it can be empowering, he suggests.

READ MORE: No one’s ‘immune’ to memory distortion, even those with superior memory

Researchers have even documented the fallout of crash landings that didn’t result in any injuries like the AC 624 flight. In 1984, a university state basketball team crash landed in the United States – 12 days later, 93 per cent of the group was still dealing with hyperalertness, trouble concentrating, irritability and trouble sleeping. They had dreams about the incident, felt a “high degree” of physical pain and felt detached from the world.

At the one year mark, about five of the victims still reported these symptoms. While the group emerged from the accident unharmed, they were still met with “personal experiences of terror.”

How memory plays a role

Last summer, Canadian researchers published findings from a landmark study that documented the survivor stories of passengers on board 2001’s Air Transat Flight 236 from Toronto to Lisbon. It lost all power while flying over the Atlantic Ocean.

Story continues below advertisement

Canadian psychologist Margaret McKinnon was on her honeymoon aboard the flight.

“We were asked to put on our life jackets…the cabins depressurized, the oxygen masks came down…and several announcements were made that we would ditch into the ocean,” McKinnon, a psychologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., told Global News in 2014.

The passengers were taught the crash position, to brace for the impact and followed the countdown to impact.

READ MORE: Mental health of survivors after a natural disaster often overlooked, says expert

But the pilot managed to conduct an emergency landing on a small military base, saving the lives of all 306 people on board. McKinnon said death seemed imminent.

The research – the first Canadian findings that look at people exposed to the exact same trauma – warned that memory plays a pivotal role in who is most susceptible to PTSD.

Fifteen survivors were studied. Fifty per cent of the group developed PTSD and it was those who had a tendency to produce “external details,” these minute recollections that were stored but weren’t related to the event. It included how they were feeling at the time or some type of reflection.

READ MORE: As dementia sets in, artists still recall drawing from memory

If survivors had efficient memory that targeted facts, they were less likely to encounter post-traumatic stress. If they had less control over their memories and processing of emotions, they’d deal with trauma.

Story continues below advertisement

Amitay suggests that’s why talking about what happened in a safe environment can ease the fear and help victims talk about the situation realistically and factually, rather than engaging in negative distortions of the incident, which commonly occurs and can cause symptoms to worsen.

READ MORE: Does shift work hurt your brain? Memory, processing affected, study warns

“It could stop reinforcing distortions you’ve created,” he said.

Sponsored content