Pilots are flying while dealing with suicidal thoughts and depression, landmark study shows

The research, conducted in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, examined mental health within the airline industry

Pilots are flying while dealing with suicidal thoughts and depression, landmark study shows

File photo of a Southwest Airlines jet. Image: Tony Gutierrez / AP/Press Association Images

Thousands of pilots are working and flying every day while experiencing suicidal thoughts, a landmark new study has found.

This study found 12.6% of airline pilots surveyed meeting depression threshold and 4.1% of pilots reporting having suicidal thoughts.

Pilots diagnosed with acute depression are automatically deemed unfit to fly, but the research found many are scared to seek help, due to fear of damaging their careers.

However, female pilots were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

Its authors said there is a “veil of secrecy” surrounding mental health problems in the cockpit.

“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 Professor Joseph Allen, who led the research.

On March 24, 2015, Germanwings flight 4U 9525 crashed into the French Alps killing 150 people. Investigators of this tragic event report the 27-year-old co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane. 

Further examination of the co-pilot’s history found evidence suggesting the co-pilot suffered from clinical depression. Previous suicide attempts and having a history of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression, are risk factors of suicide.

British pilot Chris McGee has flown commercial jets for 20 years, and said the issue needs addressing,

"The stigma attached to mental health issues must be removed across society - it must be talked about", she said. "If you break a leg, if you hurt your arm, you go to a doctor, it gets fixed. People must start talking about it more."

Depression, which affects people’s ability to concentrate and process information, can present as a feeling of failure or listlessness and loss of interest in the task at hand.

Almost 3,500 pilots responded to the anonymous Harvard survey, although of these more than 1,100 refused to answer questions relating to mental health.

The study recommends airline organizations increase support for preventative mental health treatment. The full results can be viewed here in the Environmental Journal.