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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2014-2015

Pilots are in need of additional mental health support

For the past year, it seems the media have reported an almost frightening number of plane crashes and eerie disappearances. While there are varying explanations as to the causes of these mishaps, one repeated speculation is related to mental health. Most recently, the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 has created controversy due to the reported “hidden” mental illness of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz.

The man had told the airline of his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts in previous years. However, as with most aviation employers, self-report is the main system by which mental health issues are addressed. It would be easy for pilots like Lubitz to keep their struggles to themselves, thus preventing them from receiving the help they need. It is impossible to know if Lubitz’s past with mental illness influenced his decision-making in the crash, but the situation has warranted a need for change in the mental health protocol for pilots.

First, it seems important to implement a new testing procedure in regard to mental health. Pilots should be required to complete certain mental health inventories to identify potential problems. This information should not be used to impact hiring practices but rather to provide resources and help to the men and women who need it.

According to statements put out by multiple airlines, new policies have gone into effect to prevent any negative outcomes of diminished mental health in flight. Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Germany are among some of the countries that have begun to require two personnel in the cockpit at all times. While this procedure could definitely be beneficial, it is also necessary to implement strategies to address mental health on the ground, not just in the air.

Rather than looking at airline employees struggling with a mental illness as a liability, or someone to be feared and watched, airlines should provide resources and aid to all. Further, rather than ignoring potential problems, aviation companies should encourage individuals with mental illnesses to come forward and get the help they need. They should not be reprimanded or stigmatized, but supported.

Plane crashes should never be blamed on someone who may or may not have been struggling with a mental illness. They should instead reflect the unacceptable practices of airlines that do not provide the help needed to such individuals. This should be a clue that changes need to be made in the way mental health is handled within the aviation field.