The Aviation Industry Must Tackle the Stigma Around Mental Health

Air France pilot
An Air France pilot stands in front of the airline's new Boeing Inc. 787-9 Dreamliner passenger aircraft at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Roissy, France, December 2. A higher percentage of pilots than the average population are estimated to suffer depression. Benoit Tessier/REUTERS

The psychological pressures today's pilots face made stark headlines following the 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster, when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who suffered from depression, deliberately flew a plane into the French Alps. But the December findings from a Harvard University survey conducted in the wake of the incident indicate over 12 percent of commercial pilots suffer from depression, and over 4 percent are suicidal—likely eye-opening facts for passengers.

The estimation that a higher percentage of pilots than the average population suffer depression is well documented in the industry itself.

Research by the industry in recent years has highlighted a 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.

For the aviation industry, the Harvard 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."

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-focused medical care and the expansion of voluntary peer support programs. This followed the U.S. 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 their job.

Certainly, progress has been made. As one pilot who suffered from depression, and who wished to remain anonymous, said: "While it is probably true that most pilots view many of the aviation medical professionals that they deal with as 'looking for an excuse to ground them,' at a regulatory level my experience so far has been exactly the opposite," he argued. "Their [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.'"

However, clearly the industry must do more, especially in developing a wider culture of openness and understanding. Ultimately a two-pronged approach is required—to tackle 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 helping ease the strain, especially related to fatigue. Boeing predicts that, to meet growth and demand, the industry will require 617,000 more commercial pilots 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 percent per year, for example), investment is geared towards the technology and facilities required to sustain this growth; however, leaders must ensure that this is not to the detriment of the people. In some countries, particularly the U.S., greater investment is already resulting in more trained physicians and better psychological testing but the sector must do more to guarantee this universally.

Thirdly, and most importantly, we must challenge and destroy the stigma for pilots surrounding mental health issues. This can only be comprehensively achieved via an industry culture change, and will be the collective responsibility of airlines, unions, pilot training academies and regulators. The message to our pilots must be loud and clear: suffering from mental health issues is OK; you are not alone; the industry will work with you, not against you, to get you back into the cockpit.

Fostering a wider conversation, and greater openness, about mental health issues will ultimately prevent pilots from suffering in silence. It will ensure pilots are aware that if they are depressed, support is there for them, and in many instances they will still be allowed to fly. And, most importantly, by giving our pilots the confidence to self-report, it will ensure greater mental and physical safety for us all.

Max Buerger is head of partnerships at aviation training company Alpha Aviation Group.