Helping Calm A Delusional Passenger: A Peer Specialist Comes To the Rescue


Mental Illness Crisis at 35,000 Feet

By Gabe Howard

When I saw the young woman reach for the cockpit door on a recent cross-country flight, I knew there was going to be trouble.

 A few moments earlier, I had watched her come down the aisle to use the lavatory at the rear of the aircraft near where I was sitting. She tried to open its door but couldn’t. She tried again.

 A flight attendant noticed and told her the bathroom was occupied and that she would need to wait her turn.

 The woman insisted the door was just stuck and kept struggling with it.

 I was sitting close enough to see the woman’s eyes and what I saw troubled me.  Total anxiety. The fear and confusion radiating off her was as clear as day to me because I had experienced panic and anxiety attacks.

 The flight attendant suggested she try the rest room in the front of the aircraft. The woman started to cry, gasp for air, and whimper unintelligibly, as she returned up the aisle.

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.

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.

Gabe is a mental illness writer, speaker, and activist. Interact with him on FacebookTwitterYouTube,Google+, or his website   —  Gabe has written blogs for me in the past. This one is truly incredible. Not only was Gabe able to use his experience and talent, but an airline and its employees handled the incident without panicking, wrestling the delusional passenger to the floor and having her arrested. 

Thank you Gabe for helping a stranger in need!  (This is a slighted edited version of Gabe’s article that first appeared on PsychCentral.)


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.