A new study reveals that airline pilots currently flying may be clinically suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
The findings, published in journal of Environmental Health, came a year and a half after a Germanwings co-pilot, who suffered from depression deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps, killing 150 people.
The study also found that depression was more likely among pilots who used higher levels of sleep aid medication and those who were experiencing sexual or verbal harassment.
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Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US described pilot mental health — with a focus on depression and suicidal thoughts — outside of the information derived from aircraft accident investigations, regulated health examinations, or identifiable self-reports, all of which are records protected by civilian aviation authorities and airline companies.
“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,” said senior study author Joseph Allen.
“There is a veil of secrecy around mental health issues in the cockpit. By using an anonymous survey, we were able to guard against people’s fears of reporting due to stigma and job discrimination,” Allen added.
For the study, out of nearly 3,500 who participated in the survey, 1,848 completed the questions about mental health.
They found that within this group, 233 met the criteria for likely depression, and 75 reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous two weeks.
Of 1,430, who reported working as an airline pilot in the last seven days at the time of the survey, 193 met the criteria for depression.
A greater proportion of male pilots than female pilots reported that they had experiences “nearly every day” of loss of interest, feeling like a failure, trouble concentrating, and thinking they would be better off dead.
Female pilots were more likely than male pilots to have at least one day of poor mental health during the previous month, and were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.
“Our study hints at the prevalence of depression among pilots–a group of professionals that is responsible for thousands of lives every day–and underscores the importance of accurately assessing pilots’ mental health and increasing support for preventative treatment,” said Alex Wu, a doctoral student at Harvard Chan School and first author on the paper.