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The Stigma Around Pilot Mental Health Must Be Tackled - Once And For All

21/12/2016 16:40 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 16:40 GMT
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The findings of a new survey into commercial pilots' mental health has once again thrown light on psychological hurdles that many pilots face.

According to the Harvard University survey, over 12% of commercial pilots could be flying with depression, with 4.1% also reporting having suicidal thoughts within the two weeks prior to being surveyed.

What this has reminded both the industry and passengers alike - and it is all too easy to forget - is that the stresses and pressure of life as a commercial pilot are significant.

There is no doubt that the Germanwings Flight 9525 disaster has had a profound impact on how airlines approach the issue of mental health in the cockpit, with, positively, many more airlines and regulators increasing investment in peer support programmes and better psychological evaluation.

However, it's also inevitable in the wake of the Germanwings disaster that commercial airlines, with passenger safety being paramount, will feel more nervous and cautious towards pilot mental health issues.

As a result, many pilots who are suffering from depression and are in need of support are reluctant to speak out, fearful that doing so will see them grounded, or may even risk their entire career. No pilot wants to be grounded - the reason we get into this hugely rewarding career is because of a love of flying. It is for this reason many pilots feel they have no option other than to remain silent.

Yet stress, which is one of the main causes of depression, is all but inevitable in a pilot's career. The demands of the job mean that we spend a great deal of time away from my home and family, travelling between different time zones which can be taxing on the body. The erratic nature and unpredictability of schedules can exacerbate these problems further.

Piloting is also a job with a lot of responsibility, which in turn contributes to mental fatigue. I know I must be constantly focussed because, for the entire duration of the flight, myself and my colleagues in the cockpit are in charge of our passengers lives. This intensity, along with the hectic schedules and a fragmented routine, can be very mentally taxing.

The current global pilot shortage is exacerbating this further. Demand for air travel is increasing, and Boeing predicts that by 2035, 617,000 more commercial pilots will be needed to satisfy industry demand.

In the longer-term, training more pilots should help alleviate some of the pressure. But training a pilot takes time - it took me 18 months to get my Multi-Crew Pilot License, so in the shorter-term, more immediate solutions need to be found.

Ensuring that airlines and pilot training schools invest as much in their people as they do in their technology and physical facilities is a starting point. Most important is an industry culture change by deconstructing the stigma around mental health - something that will take a concerted effort from the whole industry, including regulators, manufacturers, airlines and pilot training schools.

Personally, I am lucky that, as a pilot, I have never experienced severe depression or anxiety in the cockpit. I have always felt supported by my pilot training school, Alpha Aviation, and airline, Air Arabia. But even when training, I was abroad for extended periods of time, missing my family and having to adapt - so I can very much sympathise with those upon who the job takes its toll.

It is encouraging to see that the commercial aviation industry is finally waking up to the issue of pilot mental health, and starting to more seriously instil a culture of openness and understanding. The industry must continue to support, understand and amplify the message that suffering from depression, and even being on anti-depressants, doesn't necessarily mean you can't fly. The result would be greater safety within the industry for all.