I was at the airport for the first time since COVID had started. It all felt so foreign.

I went from having about 3 flights to catch a month to 3 years of not even leaving the province. 

Even though I was only flying from Toronto to Abbotsford,  I felt the anxiety creep up. 

Anxiety was nothing new to me. I was diagnosed in my early 20s and spent every day since learning more about it. I even worked in the mental health space for seven years. However, I had yet to experience flight anxiety. 

A few security checks later, I was at my gate and ready to go.

Thankfully, I got through quickly, boarded the plane, and started my usual in-flight routine. I put my bags away, headphones in, shoes off and gazed out the window until I inevitably dozed off. I was fast asleep by the time we took off. 

I was ready for a smooth flight ahead, that wasn't until an announcement woke me up: “Is there a doctor on board? We have a medical emergency and are looking for a doctor or nurse on board. Please hit your call button if you can assist.” It took me a couple seconds to realize I wasn’t dreaming. It felt like I was in a movie.

I took off my headphones and listened in. All the flight attendants rushed to someone a few rows behind me. 

“Her hands are cold and turning blue,” I heard one flight attendant say.  “She can’t breathe. She's hyperventilating.'' 

"She said it came out of nowhere.”

I continued to listen in and the more I heard, the more I remembered having those symptoms myself. It sounded like the woman was having an anxiety attack. 

“We’re going to have to re-route the plane,” I overheard. 

I wasn’t a doctor. I wasn’t a nurse. I did work at a hospital, so maybe that helped, but I certainly wasn’t who they were asking for. However, I had a feeling I knew what to do in this moment. I hit my call button and the frantic flight attendants called me over. I told them I thought I could help and said if I couldn’t I’d just go back to my seat. They gave me a few minutes to try, otherwise we’d have to make an emergency landing at a random airport in some barren land as we were flying over Alberta.

I introduced myself to the girl who was having the emergency. “Hi, my name is Jessie Brar. I work at a hospital in Brampton and have a background in mental health. It looks like you’re having an anxiety attack. Have you ever struggled with anxiety before?”

She gave me a small nod, still struggling to breathe. “Okay, I know when I get anxiety attacks I find it hard to catch my breath and my body starts to feel really hot. Is it okay if I help you get control of your breathing and give you some ice?” Another small nod. The fear in her eyes was still there, but it felt like a little bit of hope was coming through.

I directed one of the flight attendants to get a Ziploc bag of ice cubes and placed it on the back of the girl’s neck. I put her hands in mine and gently squeezed them to get the blood flowing. We locked eyes and I began to guide her through breathing. Breathe in. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. And breathe out. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Her body gradually synced with the words, lungs filling in and out with air. I felt her hands ease their grip on mine and a long sigh of relief from those watching followed.

As we slowly got her back to a calm state, the flight attendants directed everyone back to their seats and gave her some water to sip on. A kind attendant came back and thanked me for stepping up in the crisis. Everyone went back to their normal business and I took a seat beside the girl for the remainder of the flight.

She thanked me profusely and told me she was so embarrassed for what had just taken place. I told her it was alright and I was just glad she was okay.

We chatted a little more and I learned that  this was only her second flight alone and she had a history of anxiety. As we hit some turbulence, she looked out the window and it felt as though the plane was losing control. The thought escalated and suddenly she was spiralling physically and mentally. I understood those feelings all too well.

Moments like that take a lot of energy out of you and, exhausted by what had happened, she slowly drifted off to sleep. I sat beside her and stared back out to the sky through the window. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a nurse. However, I am who they needed. I took first aid classes when I was younger, but that didn’t help me—my mental health first aid training did. I took CPR training, but that didn’t help me—the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training did. 

This experience is a glaring reminder that our mental health is just as important as our physical health. A doctor or a nurse most likely could have handled that situation, but that person needed someone to help on a mental health front. 

I got to live out a full on TV trope in the sky and it’s a moment I won’t forget. But it left me with a lingering takeaway; mental health first aid should be mandatory everywhere that first aid is. I’m sure it would have made many more people on that plane qualified to help out. You don’t need to be a psychologist or therapist to help a person pass through an instance of crisis. 

If you’re ever interested in obtaining your mental health first aid, you can find courses both virtually and in person through Mental Health First Aid Canada.

About the author

Jessie Brar

Jessie Brar (she/her) is a writer, public speaker, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion professional and Mental Health Activist. She graduated from Queen's University with a degree in Psychology and has worked with several notable organisations worldwide to help raise awareness around important social justice topics and advocate for change. She is deeply passionate about her intersectional identities and is committed to being a life-long learner through her work. Check her out on Instagram - @jessieebrar.

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