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Analysis | Your Pilot May Have Suicidal Thoughts. and it’s okay

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What would it be like to get on a plane knowing that the pilot was suicidal? If you’re a regular traveler, you’ve probably already done it.

Few things in aviation inspire greater fear than the prospect of a pilot deliberately grounding an airplane. This is what everyone knew in 2015 when 150 people died on Germanwings flight 9525 after the first officer captain locked the plane out of the cockpit and steered the plane into an Alpine mountain.

It is such a worrying prospect that some suspected pilot suicides continue to be hotly debated, as was the case with the crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 shortly after departing New York City in 1999. no conclusion was reached. Now that possibility is China Eastern Airlines Corp., the Wall Street Journal reported this week. The fate of Flight 5735 hangs on it, which likely may have had its controls deliberately dropped before its crash on March 21.

Despite all the understandable alarms such events attract, the solution is almost certainly to be more open, not more restrictive, about mental health. Of the nearly one billion commercial flights since the 1970s, only eight crashes have suggested pilot suicide. The far greater risk is that aviation culture prevents pilots from being honest about their moods, thus allowing depression and other ailments to fester without patients seeking the treatment they need.

Commercial pilots are among the few professionals who must pass medical tests, often conducted annually, to certify their suitability for continued employment. They will include physical vision and hearing checks, as well as asking if pilots have had mental health problems or have seen a psychologist.

“Pilots are reluctant to report their mental health,” says Corrie Ackland, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales who studies the issue. “Being a pilot is not easy. They are doing a lot to achieve success, and taking an action that could very well endanger their health is a risk they are not prepared to take.”

It’s not hard to see the problem in this setup. Ideally, pilots with mental health problems should seek help and report this to their employer – but they are much less likely to do so if it could end their careers. Even more intrusive ways to control someone’s mental state are easy to hack. Those who want to hide their depression ask, “Over the past two weeks, how often have you had little pleasure in doing things?” They know it when asked. The answer will be: “Not at all.”

Compare the anonymous surveys of aviators with the anonymous surveys, and it is clear that a taboo is perfectly in place. A self-reported survey by New Zealand pilots when renewing their medical certificates found that only 1.9% suffered from depression, levels much lower than those reported among the general population. But after the Germanwings crash, an anonymous survey of 1,848 pilots found that 12.6% suffered from depression and 4.1% had suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks. While this may sound alarmingly high, it is quite in line with levels in the general population and particularly in high-stress occupations.

It’s hardly surprising that pilots have mental health problems. Separation from family and non-work social networks, disrupted sleep, and irregular work hours all come with territory. Add to this mix a reluctance to seek help, and notable rates of depression are not even higher.

Making the problem worse is the sheer stress of the job itself. Most flights are uneventful, but this is because pilots need to be meticulous in following procedures while having the mental flexibility to troubleshoot problems in real time. Even then, increasingly complex systems complicate the task because the machines they fly are more complex and difficult to understand.

In his book No Man’s Land, Captain Kevin Sullivan details the numerous computer errors he had to deal with when Qantas Flight 72 crashed to Earth over Western Australia in 2008. He came face to face after landing his crashed plane. The former US naval pilot retired from commercial aviation as a result.

Few pilots face events as dramatic as the QF72, but tight deadlines, tight budgets and job insecurity add to the impact of even small events. Many do not write a book about their experiences or receive the level of peer or institutional support Sullivan received.

Airlines are understandably paranoid about all aspects of safety, including mental health. The problem is that the current stamp on addressing the issue openly does not serve these purposes. The pilot whose Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed had a history of depression known to the airline but did not proactively disclose that he had severe worsening in his mental state four months before the crash – something the crash report attributed in part to fear of losing it. its license.

A simple solution might be to do more to encourage retirement or temporary relocation to ground duties for pilots facing indefinite leave or even mental health issues. Solid guarantees that a self-report by airlines won’t end an aviator’s career in the sky will encourage patients to find the help they need.

The medical profession itself can have useful lessons by pushing back laws that require mandatory reporting of mental health problems to regulators, so that such measures are only made in the rare cases where patients may 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 hide and suppress their true moods.

If you want to treat depression, the first and most helpful step is usually to start talking about it. This is a lesson for the aviation industry to heed.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

Being Sole Pilot in the Cockpit Is A Terrible Idea: Culpan and Fickling

Boeing Risks Another Setback in China Jet Crash: Brooke Sutherland

Despite Tragedy, Indonesia’s Air Security Is Rapidly Recovering: David Fickling

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. He has previously worked for Bloomberg News, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist describing technology in Asia. Previously, she was a tech reporter for Bloomberg News.

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