Nearly 1 in 7 airline pilots suffers from depression, finds study

Nearly 1 in 7 airline pilots suffers from depression, finds study

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan School) have, through an anonymous web-based survey, examined mental health issues affecting commercial airline pilots. The findings, published in the journal Environmental Health in December 2016, show that nearly one in seven pilots suffers from depression. Researchers were prompted to reassess mental health issues among pilots following the premeditated crash of a Germanwings flight in the French Alps which killed 150 people in March 2015. The ill-fated aircraft’s co-pilot suffered from clinical depression and undetected suicide attempts and kept it hidden from his employer.

Although the survey was sent to almost 3,500 working pilots, only 1,848 answered questions regarding mental health. Among the people who responded:

  • Criteria for depression were met by 13.5 percent, or 193 pilots, from the total of 1,430 pilots who answered mental health queries and flew an aircraft in the previous seven days.
  • Clinical depression conditions were satisfied by nearly 13 percent, or 233 pilots.
  • Suicidal ideation was reported by around four percent, or 75 pilots, during the past two weeks.

There was a higher likelihood of depression among pilots who, during the last 12 months, were:

  • Sexually harassed (36.4 percent experiencing four or more harassment incidents in the previous week).
  • Verbally harassed (42.9 percent experiencing four or more harassment incidents in the previous week).
  • Prone to using higher levels of sleeping pills.

Pilots with mental health issues avoid seeking treatment fearing adverse career implications

The authors, who surveyed pilots in the U.K. and globally, state that flying an aircraft is regarded as a stressful profession and long duration flights hinder sleeping patterns. The pilots probably avoid seeking treatment for mental health issues fearing negative career implications such as being certified not fit for duty or being grounded and losing the job.

According to Joseph Allen, exposure assessment science expert at the Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study, there is a “veil of secrecy” around pilots’ psychological issues. The reason for using an anonymous survey was to mitigate the fear of stigma and discrimination among pilots which was causing them to under-report their mental health conditions.

Depression common in other professions

The authors have also estimated the following occurrences of depressive symptoms in other professions:

  • 7 percent among emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
  • Between 10 and 17 percent among officers of the police force.
  • 12 percent among currently deployed and 13 percent among previously deployed military personnel.

Through future studies, the researchers hope to identify the risk factors which possibly cause depression among pilots. Alexander Wu, a doctoral student at the Harvard Chan School and co-author of the study, states the authors’ suspicion regarding higher occurrence of depression among pilots may be linked to disturbed circadian rhythms, irregular sleep patterns, or both. The authors add that it is tougher to schedule treatment for pilots not only because of social stigma but also due to their longer working hours.

In June 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration laid down rules that medical examiners who screen commercial pilots will need to undergo additional training to assist them in better detecting indications of mental health issues. However, the testing is not mandatory.

Allen writes that although present aviation policies target better mental health testing, assessment and maintaining records, more support for preventive treatment is required. For this, the authors suggest that airlines and aviation authorities should normalize the process for pilots to get mental health treatment by, say, an endorsement from pilots’ managers, reiterate preventive mental health measures and customize the treatments to factor in distinctive challenges and stressful situations faced by pilots.

Seek help for mental illnesses

If you or a loved one is suffering from any kind of mental disorders, such as depression, contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline to know more about the best rehab centers in Florida. Call our 24/7 helpline number 866-846-5588 or chat online with experts to get information on the finest treatments for mental health disorders in Florida.

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