Depression, Suicidal Thoughts Common Among U.S. Pilots

(CN) – Researchers have just given nervous flyers another reason to be worried about their upcoming flights: Hundreds of pilots actively flying commercial planes may be clinically depressed or have thoughts of suicide.

The disconcerting findings were published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health.

Travelers in the United States should be especially concerned, as nearly half of American pilots reported symptoms of depression. Canadian pilots had the second highest rate, at nearly 13 percent.

“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 senior author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University.

Allen said the anonymous survey was designed to protect the pilots, allowing them to express feelings or concerns without damaging their careers.

“There is a veil of secrecy around mental health issues in the cockpit,” he said. “By using an anonymous survey, we were able to guard against people’s fears of reporting due to stigma and job discrimination.”

The findings come more than a year after a Germanwings co-pilot suffering from depression deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

The survey included nearly 3,500 pilots from more than 50 nations and focused on depression and suicidal thoughts, with standardized questions about health and job content drawn from the questionnaires of public health organizations and questions doctors use to diagnose depression.

Of the pilots surveyed, 1,848 completed the questions about mental health. Of those, 233 – 12.6 percent – met the criteria for depression. Nearly 5 percent of this group reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous two weeks.

More male pilots than female pilots reported experiences “nearly every day” of trouble concentrating, loss off interest, and thinking they would be better off dead. But female pilots were more likely to have at least one day of poor mental health during the previous month, and were also more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

Sexual or verbal harassment and greater use of sleep-aid medication were also more common among pilots with depression.

“Our study hints at the prevalence of depression among pilots – a group of professionals that is responsible for thousands of lives every day – and underscores the importance of accurately assessing pilots’ mental health and increasing support for preventative treatment,” said first author Alex Wu, a doctoral student at Harvard.