Pilots’ Mental Health
The deliberate crashing of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 has brought to the fore mental health issues, particularly as they concern pilots and their ability to operate aircrafts under specific mental states. The crash, which led to the death of 150 people, was a result of actions of Andreas Lubitz deliberate actions. The crash poked holes in the current aviation practice including the use of non-experts in mental health examination, self-reporting and the punitive consequences of self-reporting. To help avoid any similar incidents, it is necessary to enlist the services of experts in mental health for diagnosis, develop a staff support system and adjust the regulations to become more pilot-friendly.
Pilots’ Mental Health
The deliberate crashing of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 (a subsidiary of Lufthansa) has brought to the fore mental health issues, particularly as they concern pilots and their ability to operate aircrafts under specific mental states. The crash, which led to the death of 150 people (all passengers and crew), was a result of actions of Andreas Lubitz, a mentally unstable copilot, who on discovery of his mental deterioration with the possibility of losing his flying license decided to commit suicide by crashing the plane in the French Alps (Kilish & Clark, 2015). Although regulations on pilots’ mental health bar pilots from flying planes under such conditions, the German regulations are not clear on what mental state pilots should be to be able to fly a plane, and which type of plane they can fly. It is for this reason therefore, that there is need for revision of the regulations, particularly concerning the mental state of pilots before flight.
Andreas Lubitz, the copilot that crashed Germanwings’ Flight 4U9525, resumed his flight training in 2009 after several months of interruption (Kilish & Clark, 2015). Lubitz had started his flight training in 2008 at Bremen and Arizona, and although the interruption came, he eventually passed all tests and had clearance as being fit to fly. However, in his reapplication to the training, Lubitz had intimated that he has suffered extreme depression, an acknowledgement that should have raised red flags over his fitness to fly (Kilish & Clark, 2015).
In its acceptance of the copilot, the company (Lufthansa) had taken Lubitz through the customary applicant-screening process and medical tests. According to Kilish and Clark (2015), the company, however, did not, put into action, any plane ensuring that he (Lubitz) was receiving the appropriate treatment, especially after his acknowledgement of suffering severe depression. Additionally, the company did not enforce any form of special monitoring on Lubitz condition, aside from the standard monitoring for pilots with an identified health issue (Kilish & Clark, 2015).
Lubitz, therefore, made it through the training program, successfully completing it and was assigned as the first officer of Flight 4U9525, for Germanwings, an economy subsidiary of Lufhansa. Unaware of his mental condition and the troubles he had been having, including visiting other doctors apart from the company’s medical staff, Luftahansa’s CEO had confidently certified Lubitz as fit for flight (Kilish & Clark, 2015). This mistake sadly culminated with Lubitz’s crashing of the plane killing the 150 people onboard. Lubitz opportunity had presented itself after the pilot left the cockpit for the toilet. He (Lubitz) locked himself in the cockpit and set the plane on descent, crashing it in the French Alps (BBC, 2015).
By voluntarily allowing the plane to lose altitude, Lubitz raises the question of mental health of the pilots and cabin crew and the process used for vetting the state of the mental health of the flight crew. Current screening practice for cabin crews involves both physical and mental evaluation. For commercial pilots above 40 years, regulations require that they pass a physical and mental evaluation after every six months (Park & Oaklander, 2015). For pilots under 40 years, certification for flying a passenger plane requires that the pilot pass a physical and mental exam every year. Park and Oaklander (2015) inform that although both physical and mental evaluations are necessary, there is high emphasis on physical exam, given the difficulties in quantifying mental health.
Moreover, most mental health exams are largely yes or no questions asked concerning the pilots’ mental health. Mental health specialists dealing with pilots ask pilots if they have attempted suicide or have regular appointments with a psychiatrist (Park & Oaklander, 2015). Answers to these questions are dependent on the pilot, and the specialists have no way of telling whether the pilot is speaking the truth or not. Additionally, pilots have the discretion of visiting different locations for the examinations, only bringing back the results. Therefore, in case the examination is not internal, specialists have no way of accessing the pilots’ data from past examinations.
Self-reporting on the state of mental health mean that the pilot is at liberty not to divulge any potential mental health problems, regardless of the seriousness of the problem. According to Vuorio et al. (2014), reporting such mental health problems is essentially a threat to the pilot’s career. To avoid such threats, pilots compartmentalize their emotional experiences, in such a way that the emotions do not interfere with their work (Park & Oaklander, 2015). Worse still is that most medical examiners evaluating pilots for recertification are largely incompetent in mental health. By relying solely on the pilot’s responses, and due to their lack of training in mental health, the medical examiners easily ignore or do not notice subtle signs of depression or alcoholism.
Self-reporting is a major loophole in the aviation particularly in reference to the mental of the aviator. During the acceptance for training, Lubitz successfully passed all physical and mental exams, largely because they were based on the yes or no questions. The absence of an extensive mental health examination, therefore, is to blame for the crash. It is possible that through such comprehensive mental examinations, the experts would have identified the suicidal tendencies in Lubitz, and not certify him as fit for flight (Vuorio et al., 2014).
Additionally, the current state of examining the health of pilots, apart from laying emphasis on physical health does not involve experts in mental health (Park & Oaklander, 2015). Lubitz certification as fit for flight is evidence that despite his mental instability, he passed both the physical and mental exams, most likely because a professional/expert in mental health did not do the mental exam.
Improving the system to be more inclined towards identifying and assisting pilots with mental health issues will go a long way in improving the results concerning pilot’s mental health. Although a full-scale mental assessment of all pilots in an airline annually may be time consuming and stressful to pilots, conducting it may be a better recourse than losing lives and aircrafts in avoidable catastrophic accidents (). Although getting suicidal tendencies is difficult, and would take several hours, in addition to being impractical for the whole industry, a random sampling of individuals, especially those with histories of mental disturbances can go a long way in alleviating another suicidal disaster.
As aforementioned, health diagnoses in the current system is under a medical professional, although not necessarily a mental health specialist. There is therefore a need to involve an aviation psychological expert in carrying out the mental health diagnosis. The mental health expert should be a verified individual with the requisite credentials and expertise in carrying out the assigned function. Important for the expert, however, is the fact that although there will be need for confidentiality in carrying out the functions of the tasks assigned, the expert should be able to make recommendations regarding the individual pilot based on an honest and professional evaluation. Guarding the pilot’s privacy in the examination is especially important, as it relates to professional ethical standards concerning the disclosure of patient information without the consent of the patient (Leso, 2010).
Given that, some pilots are likely not to have confidence in in-house doctors, especially with concerns over privacy, especially in cases where the pilot has deeply sat issues, it is important to provide other alternatives for the pilot. Pasztor, Wang and Carey (2015) inform that airlines such as Southwest have contract provisions allowing the company to send the aviators for further mental or physical screening where necessary. Under such circumstances, the pilots are much at ease to share their issues. This way, the professional is able to explore extensively any mental issues that the pilot is undergoing and where necessary set a treatment regimen in addition to making recommendations on the appropriate course of action.
Part of the reason for pilots’ reluctance in sharing any mental health issues emanates from the strict rules and repercussions of such reporting. Mostly, such reporting is usually a sure ticket away from the air. The regulations seem punitive to pilots who report any case of mental health issues, a fact that causes some to desist from such reporting. Moreover, according to Park and Oaklander (2015), although FAA regulations demand this reporting with a fine of $250,000 for any discovery of falsified information, the punitive nature of the reporting makes it difficult (almost impossible) for pilots to self-report. Changing the regulation to a friendlier one, a regulation that involves treatment and reinstatement after completion of the treatment may encourage more pilots to seek help on the discovery of mental health issues.
Aviation is a high-pressure job, and most pilots feel the pressure on themselves. Sad however is that most lack someone to talk to and share the demand of the job as a vent for the pressure (Park & Oaklander, 2015). Developing a mentorship program where senior pilots can coach, mentor and talk to other pilots may help reduce the pressure on the pilots. By talking to these individuals with a wide breath of experience, pilots get to learn different pressure-copying methods. Additionally, airlines can develop a crew support system, where members of the crew remain vigilant, observing any erratic behavior of the pilot that might compromise safety and reporting it for immediate action.
The Germanwings crash was a wakeup call for the aviation industry concerning the mental health of the pilots. Lubitz’s actions were unpredictable and catastrophic, and with the actions, there has been a need to review regulations concerning the operations in the aviation industry, especially with reference to mental health. In their current state, the regulations on the mental health of pilots, the diagnosis and reporting, leave a lot to be desired. By encouraging self-report but with punitive caveats attached to this self-reporting, the aviation industry does not do much to help the pilots. Moreover, by not involving mental health experts in the evaluation of the mental states of the pilots, the industry essentially misses some of the warning signs and opportunity to avert catastrophes. It is, therefore, important to put measures in place to ensure the sound mental health of pilots and their crew, in addition to ensuring the safety of the passengers. Enlisting the services of a professional psychiatrist, removing the punitive clauses and ensuring confidentiality in the diagnosis sessions are important steps towards not only improving pilots’ mental health, but also in ensuring the safety of the passengers and avoiding preventable losses for the aviation industry.
BBC (2015). Germanwings plane crash: Co-pilot ‘wanted to destroy plane.’ BBC. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32063587
Kulish, N. & Clark, N. (2015). Germanwings crash exposes history of denial on risk of pilot suicide. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/world/europe/germanwings-plane-crash-andreas-lubitz-lufthansa-pilot-suicide.html
Leso, J., F. (2010). Confidentiality and the psychological treatment of U.S. Army Aircrew Members. Military Medicine, 165(4), 261-262
Park, A. & Oaklander, M. (2015). How pilots are screened for depression and suicide. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/3760132/germanwings-plane-crash-pilot-suicide-andreas-lubitz/
Pasztor, A., Wang, S., S. & Carey, S. (2015). Medical and safety experts say they lack tools to identify suicidal pilots. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/medical-and-safety-experts-say-they-lack-tools-to-identify-suicidal-pilots-1427761038
Vuorio, A. et al. (2014). Aircraft-assisted pilot suicides: Lessons to be learned. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, 85(8), 841-846