Former Red Arrows pilot Kirsty Murphy on mental health

Red Arrows signing

As the first female RAF Red Arrows pilot, Kirsty Murphy enjoyed applause and respect whenever she displayed. Behind the scenes however, Kirsty was struggling. Having witnessed two fatal aircraft crashes, in which two of her friends tragically died, alongside the breakup of her marriage, Kirsty found herself suffering from anxiety attacks and sleep disorders.

In this guest piece, she explains why being aware of her own mental health became of utmost importance and how access to Headspace.

Many people can recognise when their mental health is not what it should be, but the widely accepted treatments can seem like a waste of time to them. That was me. Meditation? Come on – get real! Sitting still and breathing was never going to change any of the awful recent events in my life. I found two better techniques: stay in bed, hoping that tomorrow would be better… or find some solace in a glass of wine or two.

I had been given several periods of leave to ‘sort myself out’, so I was hoping that the above techniques would get me through it and I would emerge at the other end ‘back to normal’.

This strategy continued for 18 months before I was eventually referred to the Department of Community Mental Health at RAF Brize Norton. My psychiatrist was a civilian who was more used to working with city traders suffering from stress than service personnel suffering from potential PTSD. We spent the first three sessions arguing about how as a military fast jet pilot, my job and circumstances were different to that of a London professional.

After a while, I began to argue less and listen a bit more and gradually opened up to the idea of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT taught me that how you perceive an event affects how you feel about it which will in turn affect your behaviour. Thoughts lead to feelings which lead to behaviour. If you can modify the thoughts, you modify the rest of the chain – and you can maybe get out of bed in the morning.

I was sad when my course of appointments ended but I knew I had the skills to cope with most things life could throw at me. But it takes practice, and I have found Headspace a great way to top up those skills. I have recently recommended it to my husband, who is also ex-military, and he struggled with the concept just like I struggled in those early sessions. But you have to be open minded and give it time – it’s not an overnight pill.

RAF Red Arrows pilot, Kirsty Murphy

There are a range of courses to pick from, so if you don’t like one session, try another one. There is a ‘Basics’ course for those new to Headspace, but if you feel sceptical, I’d recommend trying the first few sessions and then jumping straight into something you relate more to.

I find the daily changing ‘sleep-casts’ are perfect for when I’m going through a ‘wide awake at 2am’ period again. It subtly diverts your brains attention from whatever it is internally ranting about to something else without you even noticing. There is plenty of choice – I particularly like the ‘Midnight Laundrette’. Whether it’s the narrator’s voice, the details of the things he describes, or the hum of the washing machines in the background, I find it oddly soothing. I can almost feel the memory of unloading warm, fresh smelling towels from a tumble-dryer when I listen to it! I have also used the ‘Waking Up’ session when I have struggled to get out of bed and start the day.

If you delve elsewhere you will find multi-session courses on a range of topics from anxiety, relationships, self-esteem, happiness, pain management, and grieving. I completed the 10-session course of ‘Navigating Change’ to help me deal with the constant changes that life was throwing my way. In time, I felt lighter and had more of a spring in my step on the days I listened to it.

The app is well designed and easy to use. You can choose whether you do a five, ten, or 15-minute session and because it’s on your phone you can do it privately, wherever you are. No one needs to know that you are having a bad day. I don’t use it every day, and in fact there are periods of months when I don’t touch it; but I can recognise the signs within myself and reach for it quickly. Headspace and getting outside for a 30-minute walk are my proven tonics for mental well-being. Give it a go – what have you got to lose?

The RAF Benevolent Fund provides serving personnel with free access to Headspace. To learn about the benefits of online mindfulness or to request a membership, please visit rafbf.org/headspace.

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See also: Military charities

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