Depression, Suicidal Thoughts Afflict Many Airline Pilots

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A new study finds one in eight is seriously depressed.

By Tom Jacobs

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(Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

You know that calm, reassuring voice airline pilots use to welcome you on board the plane, and estimate your time of arrival? Well, in many cases, those soothing tones may mask highly troubling emotions.

A study released just in time for the holiday travel season reports that, in an anonymous survey of airline pilots, 4.1 percent reported having suicidal thoughts over the preceding two weeks. What’s more, just over 12 percent reported symptoms indicating a major depressive disorder.

“Hundreds of pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms,” a research team led by Joseph Allen and Alexander Wu of Harvard University writes in the journal Environmental Health. It adds that many of these men and women may be avoiding needed treatment “due to the fear of negative career impacts.”

Prompted by the March 2015 crash in which a depressed Germanwings pilot flew his plane into the the French Alps, killing 150 people, the researchers decided it was time to evaluate the mental health of pilots “outside of the information derived from aircraft accident investigations or regulated health examinations.” Via emails, newsletters, advertisements, and word of mouth, they recruited pilots to take a totally anonymous online survey.

Along with a variety of questions dealing with work- and health-related issues, the survey included a standard set of nine symptoms indicating depression. These included being in a “Depressed mood, or irritable most of the day;” “Decreased interest or pleasure in most activities;” “Feelings of worthlessness, or excessive or inappropriate guilt;” and “Thoughts of death or suicide.”

The pilots indicated how often they had experienced each of the symptoms over the past two weeks, on a scale from “not at all” to “nearly every day.”

Among the 1,848 who responded, 233 — 12.6 percent — met the “threshold associated with clinical levels of depression,” the researchers report. Among those who reported working as an airline pilot in the past 30 days, that percentage was even higher, at 13.6 percent.

“Our study found 75 pilots (4.1 percent) reported having thoughts of being better off dead, or of self-harm, within the past two weeks,” they add.

While the researchers did not ask about whether the pilots had sought or received treatment for such symptoms, they note access to such help is limited by both psychological and structural barriers. “Long and continuous work hours make scheduling treatment difficult,” they write.

In addition, people in “high-stress public safety protection occupations, which we argue includes piloting commercial aircraft,” often have a self-image based on “being resilient and independent.” With that frame of mind, “admitting having a mental-health problem is extremely difficult,” they write.

Changing this will require airline executives (and perhaps union leaders) to encourage employees to get needed help. If seeking assistance becomes normalized, the researchers note that cognitive-behavioral therapy — especially as tailored to the specific needs of people in stressful professions — has shown great promise.

Nobody wants to hear on the intercom: “This is your pilot speaking. I’m awfully depressed.” But creating an atmosphere in which pilots admit such feelings to themselves—and feel secure in the knowledge that they can get help without jeopardizing their career — will go a long way toward ensuring safety in the sky.

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