Airports step up mental health support as passenger anxiety rises


ATLANTA – Robin Hancock gently worked her steel tongue drum with a pair of mallets, creating a series of soothing, mystical tones. They mingled with the faint sound of chirping birds and bubbling streams pouring from a bluetooth speaker. Her warm voice invited the two visitors to the dimly lit room to slip into a natural backdrop of their choice.

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The 20-minute guided meditation took place in an unlikely location: Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, which was the busiest passenger hub in the world by 2020. The airport’s interfaith chapel executive director Blair Walker presented the meditation sessions last fall amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

People have been noticeably more stressed over the past year, Walker said as he stepped out of his office onto the second-floor gallery that overlooks the airport’s main atrium. Walker is an ordained minister who previously worked in higher education and public health. He said that people lost their temper, lost patience, or lost it more quickly.

“There was a tightness that I’ve never seen before,” he said.

So he brought Hancock, a nature meditation guide, on board to join his team of 40 airport volunteer chaplains. She said her goal is to give people “some calmness in any storm that prevails” and to provide them with a tool that they can use the next time they feel overwhelmed.

“Travel is difficult,” said Jordan Cattie, clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Airports in particular cause panic and fear due to the maddening pace, the noise and the glaring screens, she said, but Covid increases the fear of travel.

Airport chaplains have become close witnesses to the deteriorating mental health of the people. “Without a doubt, the pandemic has taken the need for our services to new levels,” said Rev. Greg McBrayer.

McBrayer, an Anglican priest, is the corporate chaplain for American Airlines and director of the interfaith chapel at Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport, the world’s largest airport chapel. During the pandemic, he said he saw an increase in depression, anxiety and addiction among the travelers and workers served by him and his 20 chaplains.

“We encountered a tremendous amount of sadness and fear,” said McBrayer, particularly among airport employees. In the past year, he personally logged over 300 consultations about Zoom and more.

Many struggled not only with economic problems, health concerns, and deaths, but also feelings of guilt for being healthy and employed when some of their former colleagues were not. “We have seen a lot of workers come into the chapel because they need a quiet space to sit, relax, and maybe cry,” said Walker.

In the early months of the pandemic, Hartsfield-Jackson also became a haven for up to 300 homeless people a night, many with mental illnesses such as addiction and schizophrenia. You have been redirected to hotels rented by the city. With a $ 400,000 grant from the Transportation Research Board, the airport is now working with researchers to study homelessness at airports around the world, including conducting mental health interventions.

“We will be compiling best practices on how airports can support these vulnerable populations,” said Steve Mayers, the airport’s director of customer experience.

Chaplains usually encounter people in need walking through the halls in what they refer to as “present-day ministry.” Walker and McBrayer said they saw more breakdowns and panic attacks during the pandemic. Many of these events are triggered by the controversial problem of wearing masks, Walker said. A gate agent called a few weeks ago when a passenger angrily refused to wear a face covering and then collapsed when the airline took her off the flight.

“It was obvious that there was a lot more going on than just the mask problem,” said Walker.

The guided mediation in Hartsfield-Jackson is designed to “help people breathe, re-center and walk away,” said Hancock, who inherited the once-a-week love of flying from her pilot father and airport volunteers. On a busy day, each session has up to five participants to follow physical distancing guidelines.

“I can read people pretty well,” she said. “Many of them are very vulnerable and fearful right now.”

Most people are calm when they walk in and their bodies are tense. Hancock recalls an elderly couple who were on their way to Texas for a family emergency. After the meditation, the couple became more talkative. “They were afraid of what to expect. They were afraid to travel, ”said Hancock. “They were afraid of only being around people.”

Cattie, the clinical psychologist, said practices like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and controlled breathing can be very effective in thwarting anxiety triggers inherent in air travel.

Mental health and wellbeing were long before detection on airport administrators’ radar, but some services have been suspended because of the pandemic. But now they’re making a comeback. Several airports offer yoga, stretching, and silent meditation areas. Live music and pet therapy programs are also designed to soothe stressed travelers.

As more and more people are vaccinated, the number of passengers continues to increase and more trips are reserved for vacations and other fun occasions. Even so, Cattie expects the pandemic’s mental health to continue for a while. “Covid has entered every crack and foundation and has caused so much loss, change and fear,” she said. “There will be a great response.”

In her clinical practice, she has seen many patients fearful of re-entering life with its crowded places and people on the move. “Over the past year many of us have lived in a safety bubble,” she said. For most people, travel is a social muscle that hasn’t been exercised in a while. “It’s okay to be scared,” she said. “It’s normal to feel uncomfortable.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.

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