Why the aviation industry needs a new approach to mental health

Covid-19 lockdowns brought the aviation industry’s challenges around mental health to the fore, writes Lee Woodward, CEO, Skyborne.

Many aviation employees experienced stress, anxiety and depression during this time…


Covid-19 lockdowns brought the aviation industry’s challenges around mental health to the fore, writes Lee Woodward, CEO, Skyborne.

Many aviation employees experienced stress, anxiety and depression during this time but felt discouraged from reporting it, according to a study from the Lived Experience and Wellbeing Project.

It seems likely this challenge will persist until pilots no longer believe they are unable to discuss their mental health struggles without automatically placing their jobs in jeopardy.

The problem is compounded by a lack of appropriate training for pilots to help them manage mental health issues at every stage of their careers.

The answer must be creating a safer and more inclusive aviation industry through a better approach to mental health.

The current system

Currently, becoming a pilot in the US, whether professionally or recreationally, requires gaining a medical certificate, which is offered only after a candidate has completed a series of questions that might identify whether they are suffering from a mental health condition restricted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Achieving this certification requires a pilot to report any health professional visits and disclose all physical and psychological conditions and medications.

Fines can be issued for failing to make disclosures, while the aviation medical examiner can request additional testing to determine suitability for certification.

It’s important to note that treatable mental health conditions do not automatically disqualify a pilot from obtaining certification, if the correct reporting and monitoring programs are in place. Approvals take place on a case-by-case basis.

There is also a strict list of prohibited and permitted medications. Despite there being six categories of depression medications, the FAA only permits one, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Of the seven FDA-approved SSRIs, the FAA has recognised just four since 2010.

There’s a similar approach in Europe, where pilots are assessed psychologically before recruitment, with the European Commission ordering this in response to pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashing a Germanwings plane and killing all 150 people on board in 2015.

While such an event is clearly the most extreme example of the danger posed by undiagnosed mental health problems, it also starkly underlines the importance of a better approach to mental health, in which self-reporting is encouraged and support is on hand.

A fit-for-purpose mental health approach

The need to take mental health seriously in aviation and the fact that the current system isn’t entirely fit-for-purpose isn’t in doubt.

As such, regulators have considered introducing random psychological screening as one way to minimise the risk of pilots flying with undiagnosed mental health problems.

At Skyborne, we believe that this would be the wrong priority, approaching the need to address mental health challenges back to front.

We need the industry to do more than simply detect serious mental health issues once they have developed. Instead, we need to build a supportive industry in which people feel comfortable to self-report on their mental health challenges at the earliest stages, enabling them to get the support they need.

At the same time, we should prioritise training people in positive mental health habits to reduce the chances of them suffering from poor mental health in the first place.

Airlines starting to recognise problem

Fortunately, we are starting to see airlines recognise this. Delta, for instance, has launched its Flourishing Index to measure employees’ physical, emotional, social and financial wellbeing. Similarly, Virgin Atlantic provides free counselling sessions to employees.

Such initiatives should apply whether dealing with experienced aviation professionals or those still in training, with pilot schools able to play an important role in developing the mentally resilient aviation workforce of the future.

This means ensuring there’s a concerted effort to produce rounded graduates who can make sound decisions in potentially difficult situations.

Our efforts in achieving this at Skyborne include creating a partnership with the charity Red Umbrella, which is the world’s number one provider of mental health first aid courses. The initiative is ensuring our trainees in the US and UK can access world-class mental health support and professional assistance.

This can include everything from speaking with Skyborne staff who have been trained in mental health first aid via Red Umbrella, up to having access to personal counsellors supplied by the charity.

Commitment to better mental health improves flight training

Such a commitment to better mental health also improves flight training, with training in one area enhancing the other.

Best practice flying behaviours – whether that’s offering and accepting assistance, delegating where necessary or requesting help early – can be underlined when teaching positive mental health habits and vice versa.

All of this is to say that our industry can – and possibly should – introduce random psychological screening, but this should only be viewed as a last line of defence.

Ultimately, we should be looking at making such a move almost redundant. The need for psychological screening will be reduced in an industry in which pilots trained in positive mental health habits feel confident self-reporting any challenges they face at the earliest opportunity.

Such an approach will be crucial in creating the safe, supportive and inclusive aviation industry of the future.
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