With the recent and tragic Germanwings crash in France putting a spotlight on pilot health, I can feel the need for discussion about flight medicals. When I started writing this post, its focus was on physical health and what our pilots go through to maintain a current flight medical certificate. However, I feel I need to talk about mental health as well – which I came to realize is one of the taboo, whispered-about areas of health that is not only considered one of those subjects unfit for dinner talk in “regular” life, but is even more stigmatized in aviation. Name a pilot today that is not afraid to step up and admit a mental health concern and I will pay you cash money. (Although being a pilot wife you already know it won’t be much. Like, maybe a dollar.) You don’t talk about depression, anxiety, or “feeling crazy” in aviation. You just don’t. Why? Because of the fear that just like that, your medical license will be taken away – and all that work and money and education and stress was for nothing. So you suck it up and deal, because that’s what you do.
This is a complete and utter shame. Not to mention a disservice to those suffering from any number of mental health issues that should be addressed. It’s bullshit, plain and simple. These issues need to be addressed. They need to be discussed, and let out of hiding, and given a safe place. They also need to be treated, without any fear of retaliation or punishment. Because it needs to be okay to ask for and get help. Or we’re just going to see more of it – in devastating ways like the Germanwings crash.
Obviously, events like the recent crash are rare. But depression is not uncommon. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, or ADAA, 1 in 10 Americans will experience depression at some point. Pilots aren’t exempt. That means that possibly 1 out of 10 pilots are walking around and not getting the help they need. Or, they are and they aren’t saying anything about it or the medication they are taking. Are we really telling pilots that they can’t get help or even be on common medications like antidepressants? Worse than that, we are telling them to deal with it (or not) and shut up about it.
There is little to no help out there, unless a pilot wants to be grounded. Did you know that even common antidepressants such as Celexa, Prozac, and Zoloft are on the no-fly list? They are. These are medications that are prescribed routinely for depression, and the three mentioned are ones that have little to no side effects (the most common side effects are sexual or libido related).
However, in 2010, the FAA released the ban on pilots using Prozac, Celexa, Prozac, and Lexapro. Awesome, right? Not so fast. Because it also meant nothing – basically, unless you want to stop flying for a year while you are monitored, and then *maybe* be given your medical back – you’re screwed. The FAA awards them on a case-by-case basis. And guess what? Less than 50 cases have been awarded their medical license back for taking the aforementioned medications. LESS THAN 50. I don’t know about you, but that makes me super comfortable letting the FAA know my problems.
All this does is foster an environment for lying. And hiding any problems. Just sweep it under the rug and pretend that those depression statistics don’t apply to pilots. Sure, sure, you pass your medical. Here you go, you’re fit to fly. I don’t want to hear about any problems unless you want problems, you hear?
So what exactly is a pilot supposed to do if they aren’t feeling like themselves, or if they are depressed? There are a few resources out there, and the best part is that they are confidential. It’s important to know the facts – where to go to seek help, what does and does not go on your record, which health issues affect your medical, what to do if something happens, and what resources are available if something does happen.
Led by Captain Charlie Curreri, who is also a licensed professional counselor, this organization was created to help pilots who are in need of confidential help. From this article on rapp.org: “The project Wingman team helped establish a 24/7 confidential emergency mental health hotline (817) 823-7965 in case a pilot needs to address a mental health issue about him or herself, or is concerned about another crewmember’s psychological well-being. This program’s success is measured though numerous success stories. Names are withheld in confidence, but Project Wingman Director Curreri assures me that many pilots have received the help they’ve needed without fear of reprisal or loss of license, especially when it came to taking medications for mental health reasons.”
I actually called the hotline to see if it works – and it sure does! I’m currently working on getting more information that I will update here soon.
Pilot Medical Solutions
This company has helped thousands of pilots resolve medical issues. They are strictly confidential and an initial consultation is free. Their number is 800-699-4457 or you can go to their website at http://www.leftseat.com/. They have an awesome FAQ page (http://www.leftseat.com/frequently_asked_questions.htm) that answers questions like which conditions you can’t fly with, and what to do if you get a rejection letter from the FAA.
For an awesome in-depth list of medical conditions and their effects on flight medicals, head here: http://flighttraining.aopa.org/students/presolo/special/medical.html
The point is, there needs to be more support for pilots who are affected by mental illness. It can’t be something that is ignored or pushed to the side. The mental health of our pilots needs to be of utmost importance. I recently read a fascinating story written by Captain Mark L. Berry about his treatment (when he was reported by a captain for acting depressed) after his fiancée perished in an airplane crash. You can read it here: http://airwaysnews.com/blog/2015/03/31/op-ed-inside-the-head-of-those-inside-the-cockpit/. He received counseling against his will, but it was something he needed desperately.
Have anything to add to this conversation? I’d love to hear what you have to say! Comment below and we can chat. J
The Flight Wife