Aircraft noise and mental well-being – the looming challenge only starting to be acknowledged
Chris spoke movingly at the event held at the House of Commons, on 4th July, about his experiences of dealing with both mental health problems and the unwanted imposition of aircraft noise from Heathrow flights near his home. In a blog, Chris explains some of the issues of depression, especially serious depression, its impacts on other family members and the time people can take to get well. Many people with mental ill-health are vulnerable to noise, and noise sensitive. Through no fault of their own, other than choosing to live in the wrong place, people can find themselves subjected to relentless intrusive plane noise, that causes stress, anxiety and depression. Having moved to a quite area, to recover from illness, Heathrow changed flight path use, so Chris’s home was intensely overflown. The anxiety this cause was made worse as there was no proper information or reassurance from anyone about what was going on, or why, or when it might stop. Worse still, it was unclear what, if anything, anyone affected could, do to try and protect themselves. As well as annoyance, eventually the feeling of powerlessness, having no legal remedies, and the perceived lack of fairness about the situation, lead to a crushing sense of helplessness. For those with mental conditions, this can have dangerous – even life threatening – results. The seriousness of the noise problem, especially for those already susceptible to depression, needs to be acknowledged. The issue of people who are vulnerable to noise should not be ignored any longer.
Aircraft noise and mental well-being – the looming challenge only starting to be acknowledged
With thanks to Chris, (West London resident)
Chris spoke movingly at the event held at the House of Commons, on 4th July, about his experiences of dealing with both mental health problems and the unwanted imposition of aircraft noise from Heathrow flights near his home.
He spoke of having suffered from severe depression, with his last episode about 12 years ago, and the struggle following a ‘near death experience’ to slowly reclaim his life after a period of hospitalisation and lengthy rehabilitation. Confidence and the ability to do the smallest of things such as to go out, go to the shops, travel on public transport, and eventually return to work had been lost, and took years to recover.
Severe depression, is a serious illness, which although treatable in many cases, may not always respond. Sadly more than 6,000 people a year commit suicide in the UK each year. Many are severely depressed.
Now much better, Chris does not want to ever trigger a relapse, not least because the prognosis for a successful recovery is very poor. This is why he actively does everything possible to remain healthy, and has publicised the risk of aviation noise to mental health – for example, for people recovering, or who have ‘recovered’ from, severe depression.
Ironically he and his family moved to a new home about four years ago to de-stress. Very soon after, there were unannounced changes to Heathrow flight paths, and the introduction of PBN, meaning much more concentrated flights. The anxiety it caused, was made worse as there was no proper information or reassurance from anyone about what was going on, or why, or when it might stop. Worse still, it was unclear what, if anything, anyone could do about it, to try and protect themselves. Eventually the feeling of powerlessness, having no legal remedies, and the perceived lack of fairness about the situation, had the effect of increased annoyance and a strong sense of helplessness.
Chris spoke of how difficult it is to describe intense depression, and the feelings of those who suffer from it. The stress is not only on the person with depression, but also on their families. The strain and uncertainty can be immense, on everyone, and it is not something that is quickly treated with the person returning to being well in a week or two, once they complete a course of tablets. It can take months or even years to recover, if at all, and for families to begin living and believing again.
The unanticipated and unannounced arrival of aircraft noise, over areas that previously were not affected by concentrated flight paths, is, Chris felt, certainly a trigger for stress, anxiety, and in many cases depression (mental illness). He was convinced, through ‘lived experience’, that concentrated aviation noise is unhealthy and causes mental health to deteriorate. The effect can be that people either (newly) acquire depression, or in the case of pre-existing conditions depression/severe depression, is reactivated. These risks and impacts were currently ignored by the government and public health policy.
To those attempting to kick this public health issue into the long grass, advocating further research to scientifically establish a link before doing anything, Chris advised that there wasn’t time. If flight paths changed in the meantime innocent people who are vulnerable to noise and their families would be harmed. At the extreme, for a minority worst impacted, their risk of suicide could increase.
As to the question as to whether aircraft noise led to metal illness Chris advised that one merely had to ask the question, ‘does a duck quack?’.
Chris has been taking all steps he can to be pragmatic, to adjust to the noise situation in which he finds himself, while promoting awareness around the issue (the ‘elephant in the room’), and the immediate need for assistance, especially for the ‘noise vulnerable’. There is no point if someone is in crisis now, he reasoned, waiting on the chance that they may –eventually – get some assistance from the local airport. For example, double glazed window s may be promised, 6 months or more into the future. The airports, government, public health and local authorities need to understand that in the case of debilitating mental stress caused by the over-flight noise, action needs to be taken without delay. Otherwise he reasoned there could be increased mental illness, or worse.
He noted that there is a whole raft of possible mitigations against the noise, but unless people happen to live within the recognised appropriate noise contour for the airport, (eg . 57dB) they are not considered to have a problem. They are therefore given no assistance. There is much more that airports could do to help those who really suffer from the effects of plane noise.
Unfortunately the current government policy of reducing the number of people over flown has the (unintended) effect of creating unacceptable levels of noise for the minority that is overflown, by compressing and concentrating noise. There is not yet proper research into the effects, on physical and mental health, of exposure to high levels of unrelenting aircraft noise, although the NORAH study has made a direct link between increases in aviation noise and depression. Chris particularly mentioned areas where several flight paths overfly the same areas, giving people a particularly intense noise exposure, and that these are often concealed in noise contours.
In the context of new flight paths / ‘new noise’, and absence of an Ombudsman, Chris therefore advocated, a ‘double take’ which may be triggered where several flight paths converge at low altitude, with high frequency traffic, and where people overflown have serious pre-existing mental health conditions. Where someone also has pre-existing hypertension, for example, the risk factor increases still further, and the solution required is amplified. The process should allow the existing flight path architecture to be challenged. If a ‘least harm’, rather than ‘least people’ approach was taken in such case, then relatively minor adjustments in flight paths might see the number overflown increasing. This might return to more like the numbers who were moderately overflown, before route concentration was introduced. The more equitable sharing of noise could potentially save lives.
Once active mitigation opportunities (flight path location) have been exhausted there needs to be effective, adequate and available passive mitigation measures, with insulation to tackle any significant residual noise. This needs to provide people with choice, and an opportunity to ‘switch off’ noise from leaking into their homes, so people to take back some control.
For noise vulnerable people, the range of insulation products and services needs to increase from the basic acoustic survey, double glazing and insulation to in addition include triple glazing (if it was more effective), acoustic roof lights, and internal and acoustic external window shutters, where required, acoustic baffles, and other measures (Chris listed approximately 12 altogether).
In some cases, the noise levels mean people have no option but to move house. Financial help needs to be provided in order to do this, and Chris mentioned a range of approaches that could see blended funding – from airport, government and even health sources in the short term – being used to address this, especially where over concentration has brought the airport perimeter to one’s neighbourhood.
There was much more to be done to protect the potentially badly affected/noise vulnerable people, where respite alone will be insufficient. This is a major concern. With more planes, and more concentration of flight paths, the issue of the impact of aircraft noise on mental health is an issue that can no longer be ignored. It must be tackled. An advanced society should look after the welfare of its more vulnerable members.