Is More Mental Health Screening for Pilots Needed?

The deliberate crash of a Germanwings airliner over France last week by the plane’s first officer, who was apparently suffering from depression, has ignited a debate over mental health screenings of pilots in the cockpit. However, research has shown that rates of suicide by pilots is extremely low.

An FAA review of U.S. pilot suicides, found that only eight cases have been reported in which a pilot used an aircraft to commit suicide from 2003 to 2012. And in all but one of the cases, there were no additional fatalities.

Commercial pilots are screened for depression, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, though such screenings are not necessarily intensive or regular, NBC News reports. In addition, experts say that it is near impossible to tell when someone who looks healthy might have a breakdown and put lives in danger.

Another issue is that pilots who actually are depressed may be afraid of disclosing it due to stigma and the possibility it could impact their job, Gail Saltz, MD, a New York City-based psychiatrist, told NBC News.

“We need better assurances of being able to keep your job and resume your position so that pilots will be able to come forward regarding mental health issues,” she told the network. “We also need psych screening to be part of the biannual checkup, because not only do we miss chances to find out a pilot is depressed but we further make it seem too shameful to even check, let alone reveal it.”

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan, PhD, of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, writing in Forbes, noted that while pilots should get routine mental health screenings, he finds it ironic that many doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who hold patients’ lives in their hands do not undergo mandatory psychological screening or drug testing.

“Better medical testing and reporting is something that medicine needs as well,” Caplan wrote.