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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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

4000 Pilots thinking about killing themselves daily?


Those numbers did not appear realistic to me. Nor did they for Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential. Thus, Bill Mostyn over at BBC News sent me the link to the study that began this discussion of pilot stress, and the assessment that 4000 pilots, daily, were thinking of killing themselves.

From the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard, researchers Wu, Donnelly-McClay, Weisskopf, McNeely, Betancourt, and Allen (2016) conducted survey research on pilot stress, and wrote the following article:

Airplane pilot mental health and suicidal thoughts: a cross-sectional descriptive study via anonymous web-based survey
From this article came numerous conclusions, that should be addressed. 

As many know, mental health and helping pilots is a great passion of mine. So much so, I earned a Masters Degree in Human Services, while instructing and flying the B747 for Northwest Airlines. I observed what was happening in the industry, and had concern for pilot mental health, and wrote a novel to communicate the issues. Normal life stresses, induced stress from the airline environment with cutbacks, furloughs, mergers, pension loss, etcetera… to the extreme of sociopath behavior, were identified in my first novel, Flight For Control. There were no systems in place to identify and help a pilot, and then the worst case happened—German Wings.

Today I am working on my PhD in aviation with a focus on safety. A component of our education is to read and analyze research. I can see how easy it becomes to read this type of report, extrapolate, and create assumptions. While mental health is real, the reported fear that 4000 pilots are thinking about killing themselves daily, was taken out of context of this research.

The research identified that there are pilots out there facing stress, and some think that they would be better off dead or hurting themselves—but, not 4000 daily.

Reality of this study:

10 pilots out of 1798 said they thought they would be better off dead or hurting themselves daily. 9 pilots said that more than half the days, and 56 had these thoughts several days. One person with those thoughts is too many. However, I wished they would have asked the question: Would you ever take action on those feelings? 

Concerns with this study:

Researchers utilized non-random sampling. 
Therefore generalizability was reduced. Meaning that these results do not necessarily represent the general pilot population of 140,000 pilots.

Researchers targeted specific pilots, and intentionally targeted women. Thus, 13.7% respondents were women, which further reduced the generalizability. Women only represent approximately 4% of the pilot population. Therefore, the researchers selected over 3 times the percentage of females actually flying.

How did targeting skew the study? 
Wu et al. identified that more females report having depression than men in the U.S. Which should come to no surprise. Most women will tell you how they feel, men won’t—they tough it out.

Thus, with the knowledge that women report depression more than men, creating a study that targets women, despite the fact that women are such a small part of the pilot population, indicates that the numbers would be higher and do not accurately represent the general pilot population.

The age category was interesting, if you just read the top category of >60, you would assume age 60-65. However, check out the chart below, and you estimate how many of these pilots were over 65. They went all the way up to 91! I’m sorry, but there might be a few pilots who could experience depression if they had to continue to fly when they should be retired. Also, does this make you wonder what pilots they were targeting?

Maximum age limit is in the U.S. and most countries is 65, with Japan domestic at 67. Where did they find all those pilots in their 70’s, 80’s and 90+? The only place I can think of is NetJets. Therefore, this is not an accurate airline pilot study, because clearly this small sample were not all airline pilots.

Understandable Conclusion:

The study further identified elevated symptoms of depression with alcohol use at 13.5%, and sleeping pills 13.6%. But of course—alcohol and sleeping aids are considered depressants for a reason. Be careful partaking if you are feeling low.

Shocking Conclusion:

Then the authors discussed sexual harassment occurring with elevated depression symptoms to be 13.6%, and verbal harassment at 13.7%. The shocking part is that why in the world are pilots being harassed, both sexually and verbally in this day and age? And if you were consistently harassed wouldn’t you be depressed? And this survey included 13.7% women, and that is a surprisingly similar percentage for harassment.
Point to Consider:

From this study, 10 pilots think about being better of dead daily or causing harm to themselves. Yet within a 30-day period 23 pilots experienced sexual harassment, and 67 pilots experienced verbal harassment. That means that 90 pilots in this study were harassed over a 30 day period.  Combine these facts with a study that captured more women per percentage than are actually flying, and then  that exact percentage is the same for harassment. This should throw a huge red flag to something that needs to be addressed.

The one take away that I found most interesting is that all researchers concur:

“Organizations are responsible for ensuring employees who develop mental health problems receive timely mental health treatment.” 
 (Wu et al., 2016, p. 9). 
Timely Treatment is essential.
As is the issue of stress in the workplace. Perhaps we should consider higher wages for commuter pilots to assist with reducing stress, and further investigate why others are feeling depressed. Is stressors are company induced, due to operating practices, poor safety culture such as lack of a reporting culture, where the pilots fear coming forward due to retaliation, then we need to fix the company.

Huge thanks to our Harvard researchers for opening this discussion, and hopefully the surprising facts that our female pilots are being harassed will be addressed, as well as determination if pilots are feeling stress from speaking out about safety with ensuing retaliation. 

Enjoy the Holidays!
XO Karlene 

Author of:
I am Awesome. The ABCs of me. 

 Flight For Sanity coming soon....

 Catch up on the series so you will be ready!

Motivation and Children too! 


  1. Karlene,
    Thanks for digging up the truth behind the typical media skew. I hope there is more positive research toward positive measures, rather than archaic witch hunts.

    1. You're welcome! Appears like an intentional skewing of data to force numbers the way they would like them. But why scare the public needlessly? Sounds like a plot point in a thriller.
      Thanks so much for your comment!

    2. I think I can answer that one: scary headlines generate clicks, and clicks generate big stats which turn into advertising dollars. Translation: money. With the media's 24/7 broadcast cycle and the large number of news outlets (aka competition), they'll publish just about anything, and skew it for maximum exposure -- true or not.

    3. Ron, That should be criminal. It's horrible that money generates this type of headlines. I think we need to keep myth busting these theatrics. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Karlene, Thank you for putting light on this subject. It is a very intresting article and touches very deeply the reality of media manipulation but also being manipulated and used by Government body and people in a powerful role, to deviate or shadow the real problems in our industry. Our fight to change this industry has become just that; a Fight to be heard! We need to start from the reality of facts and move toward realistic changes! Thank you for your amazing presence in this industry.

    1. Valentina, you are so welcome! I appreciate your comment. Together, those voices will be heard. It's amazing that we can become one from around the world. But focusing on truth instead of sensationalism is the key. Thank you for your support!!


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