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Why the aviation industry must work together to tackle mental health stigma By: Max Buerger, Head of Partnerships of the Alpha Aviation Group

THE FINDINGS from a recent Harvard University survey that indicate over 12% of commercial pilots suffer from depression, and over 4% are suicidal, is further stark reminder – following the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster – of the psychological pressures today’s pilots face.

Although, for passengers, these statistics may serve as an eye-opener, that a certain proportion of pilots suffer from often severe depression and stress is, for the industry itself, nothing new.

Indeed the concoction of factors that can adversely impacts a pilot’s mental health – irregular schedules, constant time zone changes, extended periods away from home, severe fatigue and heightened responsibility – have been well documented and researched by the industry in recent years.

For the aviation industry, the survey’s true value lies in its wider industry culture findings related to mental health: “There is a veil of secrecy around mental health issues in the cockpit,” argues Joseph Allen, one of the report’s authors. “We found that many pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that they are not seeking treatment due to the fear of negative career impacts,” he concluded.

How accurate a picture does this survey truly paint? In the wake of the Germanwings disaster, the commercial aviation industry has been swift to implement changes, with greater investment in pilot-focussed medical care and the expansion of voluntary peer support programmes.

mental health

This followed the US Federal Aviation Administration’s decision in 2010 to allow, in certain circumstances, pilots taking antidepressants to fly as a means of encouraging those pilots suffering mental health issues to speak up without the fear of losing the job.

Certainly, progress has been made. As one anonymous pilot who suffered from depression has recalled: “The medical examiners’ attitude seemed to be more along the lines of: Let's see what we can do to get you back in the air."

“Although it is probably true that most pilots view many of the aviation medical professionals that they deal with as "looking for an excuse to
round them," at a regulatory level my experience so far has been exactly the opposite,” he argued.

However, clearly much more can be done – especially in developing a wider culture of openness and understanding.

Ultimately a two-pronged approach is required – to tackle both the core issues driving pilot depression and stress, and the stigma for sufferers around speaking out. The reality is that the certain aspects of piloting, such as long hours and schedule changes are simply part and parcel of the profession.

However, ensuring that the industry is furnished with adequate numbers of pilots will go a long way to help easing the strain, especially related to fatigue. Boeing predicts that, to meet industry growth and demand, 617 000 more commercial pilots will be required by 2035. The industry is working hard to ensure this demand is met; but this will of course take time, and is no quick fix.

The industry must also continue to ensure as much investment and emphasis is placed in its people as its physical infrastructure. In many aviation markets, especially those experiencing rapid growth (India’s aviation market is growing at 18% per year, for example), investment is geared towards the technology and facilities required to sustain this growth.

It must be ensured, however, that this is not to the detriment of the people. In some countries, greater investment is already resulting in more trained physicians and better psychological testing, but the sector must do more to guarantee this universally........................... For the FULL ARTICLE please subscribe to our digital edition.

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