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PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mental Health In The Air

Airlines To Improve Screening For Mental Health Conditions In Air Crews

Helen Bell, a freelance writer who once worked in the healthcare, field sent me a great article on mental health and the pilot. The question remains, is it possible through screening to identify a pilot's mental state? This often takes years of observation to diagnose someone. Most pilots will smile at the title to "improve" screening. As to date, new hire screening is to identify if the pilot fits the culture of the airline, not to assess their mental health. I have yet to be screened. But the job demands and performance could be indicators, if training professionals knew what to look for. For now, enjoy Hellen's article on a serious issue. 

Helen says...

Following the co-pilot induced crash of Germanwings flight A320 into the French Alps earlier this year, concerns have been raised about the way in which airlines and flight schools safeguard and screen the mental health of their charges. Following the terrible crash, which killed everyone on board, it transpired that the co-pilot responsible, Andreas Lubitz, had been undergoing treatment for depression for several months prior to taking this deadly, suicidal step. According to a diary he kept, Lubitz’s state of mind was in extreme turmoil in the weeks leading up to the crash. 

Insomnia left him running on as little as three hours sleep a night, and he was on a cocktail of drugs including tranquilizers and antidepressants – not a good combination in the first place for someone responsible for keeping a plane in the air. Although nobody could have predicted the terrible route by which Lubitz would ultimately end his suffering, the evidence that Lubitz was not at that time fit to perform his duties was ample. In the light of the airline’s failure to take Lubitz’s condition seriously enough to do something about it, aviation authorities across the world have begun to review the way in which they deal with the spectre of mental illness in pilots and air staff.

Current Procedures

It is acknowledged that being a pilot can be a very stressful and pressured job. In recognition of this, most airlines carry out psychological evaluations of potential air crews before contracting them to fly. Furthermore, when applying for a pilot’s licence, applicants are required to disclose their medical history, including any history of mental illness. A diagnosis such as PTSD, or a history of self-harm (for example) is likely to rule out the possibility of getting a licence, although conditions such as depression are currently more of a moot point. Once a licence has been obtained, however, the responsibility for ensuring the health and safety of the pilots and air crews lies with the airlines which employ them. 

Most airlines devote considerable resources to scrutinizing and evaluating their pilots’ performance and health. It’s also worth noting that anti-terrorism measures in the USA require those working with anyone involved with planes to report to the authorities any concerns they may have about a pilot’s behavior or state of mind. However, the skewed way in which society views mental health conditions can work against full disclosure on the part of air crews, and full comprehension on the part of airlines. All too often, major stress, anxiety, and depression are not viewed as particularly serious or as a hindrance to someone’s ability to perform their responsibilities. In fact, these things can all cause serious problems in performance, as well as being incredibly debilitating for the person affected.

Will Things Change?
All over the world, the fate of the Germanwings passengers and crew has led to calls for tightened and heightened mental health screening procedures for pilots. The EU has recommended that all new and prospective pilots undergo comprehensive psychological screening. In the US, experts have asked for a review into the ways in which flight schools currently deal with mental health issues in students. Part of the problem is that nobody wants to demonize or attack people suffering from mental health problems – but at the same time it must be acknowledged that a job which involves so much responsibility (and has such potential to end in tragedy) requires a consistently steady and emotionally sound state of mind. Perhaps one way in which to reduce the chances of air crews developing mental health problems is to put measures in place which will reduce stress. 

Fostering an environment in which a positive mental and emotional state is nurtured could be of enormous help. However, you can never prepare for the vagaries of disease, or of outside influences which also act upon peoples’ mental health. It is therefore important that airlines and flight schools develop ways of spotting mental health problems as they arise, and getting the affected individuals help before their health has a chance to start impacting upon their work. Mental health problems can be hard to spot – but it’s worth making an effort to do so, for the sake of everyone involved.

 What do you think the answer is?

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