Sometimes a professional is needed.

Matthew McNeil, a former airline pilot with human factors experience, is the Founder, President and Clinical Director of Denver-based LiftAffect, which provides mental health services to pilots, such as psychotherapy and mental skills counseling. The company works with airline management and unions.

McNeil transitioned from full-time commercial pilot to Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) following graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, from which he received his Master of Science degree. 

Most of LiftAffects work deals with depression and anxiety. Surprisingly, substance abuse accounts for around 5% of its work. 

LiftAffect provides two (soon-to-be-three) group coaching programs: Mental Skills Training for Value-Based Living and Mental Skills Training for Flight and Ground Performance, for pilots who have difficulty with the check-ride and training environment. This month, LiftAffect will launch the V1 Project, a coaching program for pilots to achieve greater balance in their life and build community among their professionals. 

In a recent interview, McNeil provided answers to several questions.

Regarding the value of union-based or other peer groups: “Peer programs, if monitored well, have professional oversight, and peers are well trained, then they can be a very good thing.” 

That said, if warranted, “I believe that pilots deserve the right to be treated by a professional.”

Asked why airline management support establishing mental health programs, but often decline to be interviewed, McNeil said: “Management is worried about public perception. The idea that pilots are more resilient against mental health problems than the general population is empirically false. And there is data and studies to support that.”

In fact, he said, pilots are more susceptible to mental health problems because of the nature of their job. Circadian disruptions, fear of losing their medical license and the idea that they’re super human compound the challenge of pilots reaching out for help.

McNeil said the road to establishing mental health programs at airlines began with the Critical Incidence Response Program (CIRP), and then came the ALPA-led HIMS program, then professional standards at various airlines. 

McNeil’s staff includes six licensed professionals and support staff.