13 Percent of Commercial Pilots May Be Depressed: Study

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More than one in 10 commercial airline pilots may suffer from depression, while a lesser amount have reported thoughts of suicide, says a new study from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.

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An anonymous survey of more than 1,800 pilots found that 13.5 percent of the pilots surpassed a “depression threshold” that the researchers gauged using a standard mental health scorecard. Additionally, they found that 4.1 percent – or about one in 25 pilots – reported recent suicidal thoughts.

The survey comes less than two years after a co-pilot on a Germanwings flight crashed into the French Alps, an act that investigators later attributed to the co-pilot’s history of clinical depression.

In the current study, researchers found that overall rates of depression among pilots were similar to other high-stress groups. For example, deployed military personnel experience a rate of depression of about 12 percent. Overall, depression hits about 7 percent of U.S. adults.

Yet the researchers discovered that pilots were unlikely to report their symptoms. “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 Joseph Allen, senior author of the study.

Related: Exercise Can Help People Fight Depression

The authors believe the anonymous nature of the survey allowed them to overcome the limitations of previous studies.

“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,” added Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Some at Higher Risk Than Others

Overall, survey respondents hailed from more than 50 countries, but approximately 70 percent of the respondents were from the U.S., Canada and Australia.

Males were more likely to report a loss of interest, feeling depressed, feeling like a failure and having trouble concentrating “nearly every day” than their female counterparts, according to the study results.

The study also found that the “proportion meeting depression threshold among pilots working in the past month was higher as the frequency of taking sleep aid medicines in the past month increased.” Those experiencing sexual harassment or verbal harassment on the job were also more likely to report 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 and first author on the paper.

The researchers add that “the topic of mental illness among airline pilots is not new, but identifying and assisting pilots with mental illness remains a present day challenge.”

They point to “occupational and individual barriers” unique to the occupation that may be preventing pilots from seeking help.

“We recommend airline organizations increase support for preventative mental health treatment,” write the researchers.

You can access the study in Environmental Health here: “Airplane pilot mental health and suicidal thoughts: A cross-sectional descriptive study via anonymous web-based survey.”

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.