Depression is treatable. Evil is not.
While there are no numbers available on how many airline pilots may be keeping their
depression secret as they continue flying, it’s generally accepted that about 10 percent of the
general population suffers from depression.
That could mean that 25,000 of the nation’s 250,000 commercial pilots have
Would you rather have a pilot you has been thinking about killing himself in the depths of
clinical depression with the cockpit stick in his hand or a pilot or co-pilot who is being treated
for depression with medication and counseling in control of your flight?
In a statement, the FAA said: “Pilots must disclose all existing physical and psychological
conditions and medications or face significant fines of up to $250,000 if they are found to have
In the case of mental health evaluations, pilots are taken off the flight schedule while they are
treated or begin antidepressant medications. Until 2010, even these drugs were banned, and
pilots who required them could no longer fly.
The new rule is aimed, in part, at removing the stigma of mental illness, similar to the way the
FAA began to deal with drug abuse and alcoholism in the cockpit when it established its Human
Intervention and Motivation Study 40 years ago.
Removing the stigma, in my opinion begins with education.
* What is major depression?
* How is it treated?
* What are the potential side effects of antidepressants?
* What is the prognosis?
The ignorance about depression is underscored by the person who wrote the following in an
online chat room:
“How can you be depressed when you work the best job in the world? Smile.
Those pilots who experience depression must not be there in the first place, they should take
up an office job in some insurance company and leave their place to people who really enjoy
The air disaster in the French Alps inflames the belief that mental illness can lead to violence.
It does not.
Most of the violence by the mentally ill is against themselves and not others. Multiple scientific
studies have concluded that Serious mental illness was statistically unrelated to community
violence unless unless there was also substance abuse or dependence.
The question we should be asking is why the airline industry discriminates against pilots who
are getting help for a mental illness? Would they be treated the same way for a physical illness
that is easily diagnosed in the required annual physicals?
My February 6, 2015 post Depression in the Workplace: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?
Seemed to foreshadow the devastating news the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 Andreas
Lubitz deliberately crashed the airliner. Lubitz was earlier deemed “unfit” for piloting duty by
his doctor, it is assumed, for mental reasons. He did not disclose his condition to his employer
because a pilot can be grounded, perhaps permanently, if they are being treated for
I have always advocated making the workplace mental health friendly. (See my post 5 Ways to
End Mental Illness Stigma at Your Company in 2015 )
Lufthansa and other airlines can take simple steps to be proactive in mental health wellness for
all of the pilots and other employees. For example, I learned recently about an organization
called the Workplace Wellness Ambassador Certification program, which includes mental
That organization is affiliated with Stressmaster International, created by Dr. James Petersen,
an Arizona Psychologist and Director of the Biofeedback and Stress Management Clinic in
Andreas Lubitz may or may not have been suffering from depression. If he was, that is NOT
what caused his cowardly actions.
I see a glimmer of hope in this tragedy. Attention is being given to mental illness stigma in the
workplace that makes pilots afraid of grounding their careers and putting all of us at the risk of
slamming into a mountain at 400 miles per hour.
When you get on an airliner, you ought to be comfortable that airplane is being maintained and
it’s being operated by people who are qualified and healthy and that ‘healthy’ means physical
All companies, including airlines, must take a proactive role in assuring their workers are
employed in a mental health safe environment. Bring pilots out of the closet and back into the
cockpit as they are being effectively treated for depression just like those of us non-pilots are
“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”