It’s no surprise that pilots suffer from mental health issues. The separation of family and non-work social networks, sleep disruptions and irregular work schedules all accompany the territory. Add to that a reluctance to seek help, and it’s remarkable that depression rates aren’t even higher.
Exacerbating the problem is the stress of the job itself. Most flights are uneventful, but that’s because pilots need to be meticulous about following procedures while having the mental flexibility to troubleshoot in real time. Even then, increasingly sophisticated systems make the job harder because the machines they drive are more complex and difficult to understand.
In his book No Man’s Land, Captain Kevin Sullivan details the many computer failures he had to struggle with when Qantas Flight 72 plunged to earth over Western Australia in 2008. The second part of the book describes the aftermath – the severe mental trauma which he was confronted with after his plane landed in distress. The former US naval pilot eventually retired from commercial aviation.
Few pilots face events as dramatic as QF72, but strict deadlines, tight budgets and job insecurity magnify the impact of even minor incidents. Most don’t write a book about their experience or get the level of peer or corporate support that Sullivan received.
Airlines are understandably paranoid about all aspects of safety, including mental health. The problem is that the current stigma around the subject clearly does not serve these purposes. The pilot who crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 had a history of depression known to the airline, but did not proactively disclose a serious deterioration in his mental state four months before the accident – what the report does accident attributed in part to his fear of losing. his license.
A simple solution may be to do more to encourage indefinite leave, or even retirement or temporary redeployment to ground duties for pilots facing mental health issues. Strong airline guarantees that a self-declaration will not end an airman’s career in the air would encourage victims to find the help they need.
The medical profession itself can learn useful lessons, having pushed back against laws requiring mandatory reporting of mental health conditions to regulators so that such action is only taken in rare cases where patients might be at risk. This suggests a much more honest approach to the problem, and one that will minimize the risk of pilots seeing the best solution as trying to conceal and suppress their true mindset.
If you want to treat depression, the first and most helpful step is usually to start talking about it. This is a lesson the aviation industry would do well to heed.
— Bloomberg review