China Eastern Airlines Highlights the Need of Pilot Mental Health Protection.
What if you boarded a plane knowing the pilot was contemplating suicide? You've probably already done it if you're a frequent traveler. The possibility of a pilot intentionally driving a plane into the ground is one of the most terrifying aspects of aviation. That's what happened with Germanwings Flight 9525 in 2015, when the pilot was locked out of the cockpit and the jet crashed into an Alpine mountain, killing 150 people. Some purported pilot suicides, such as the crash of Egypt Air Flight 990 shortly after takeoff from New York in 1999, are still hotly debated. Though no decision has been reached, intentional crashing is one of the explanations proposed for the 2014 vanishing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. The fate of China Eastern Airlines Corp. Flight 5735 now hangs in the balance, with the Wall Street Journal reporting this week that the plane's controls were pushed into a deliberate nosedive before the crash on March 21. Despite the reasonable outrage that such events elicit, the solution is probably likely to be more open regarding mental health than more restrictive. Since the 1970s, only eight commercial aircraft crashes have been linked to pilot suicide. The far bigger danger is that the aviation culture prevents pilots from being open about their feelings, enabling depression as well as other disorders to develop without sufferers seeking treatment.
Commercial pilots are one of the few professions that must pass annual medical exams to ensure their continued fitness for duty. Physical exams of vision and hearing will be performed, as well as questions about mental health difficulties and visits to a psychologist. According to Corrie Ackland, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales who's researching the topic, pilots are hesitant to report poor mental health. It takes a lot of effort to become a pilot. They put in a lot of effort to attain success, and taking a chance that could harm their health isn't something they're willing to accept. It's not difficult to spot the flaw in this setup. Pilots with mental health concerns should seek help and inform their employers if they need it, but they're less inclined to do that if it could jeopardize their employment. Even more intrusive methods of determining someone's mental state are simple to circumvent. It should come as no surprise that pilots have mental health issues. Disconnection from relatives and non-work social media, sleep disturbances, and erratic work hours are all part of the deal. When you add in a lack of willingness to seek help, it's no surprise that depression rates are rising.
The job's stress is exacerbating the situation. The majority of flights go off without a hitch, but pilots must be careful about following protocols while also being mentally flexible enough to debug in real-time. Even so, as the aircraft they fly become more complex and hard to understand, more advanced techniques make the task more challenging. Captain Kevin Sullivan specifies the multiple computer failures he had to deal with when Qantas Flight 72 crashed into the ground over Western Australia in 2008. In his book, No Man's Land, he details the different computer failures he had to deal with. The aftermath—the extreme mental agony he experienced after landing his wrecked plane—is detailed in the second portion of the book. As a result, the former US naval pilot had to leave commercial flying. Few pilots suffer major occurrences like QF72, but tight timelines, limited budgets, and job instability magnify the effect of even minor mishaps. Most people don't write books about their experiences or obtain the kind of community or corporate support that Sullivan did.
Airlines are rightfully concerned about all elements of security, including mental health. The difficulty is that the present stigma around discussing the subject is blatantly counterproductive. The pilot who wrecked Germanwings Flight 9525 had a recognised history of depression but didn't disclose a major worsening in his mental condition until four months before the tragedy, which the accident investigation attributed to his fear of losing his license. For pilots with mental health concerns, a simple option could be to encourage indefinite leave, retirement, or temporary redeployment to ground duty. Airlines' assurances that a self-report will not jeopardise an aviator's career might encourage sufferers to seek help. The medical community has fought laws demanding public disclosure of mental health disorders to regulators, ensuring that certain actions are performed only in the few circumstances where patients are at risk. That implies a significantly more open approach to this issue, one that reduces the chance that pilots will see the optimal answer as concealing and repressing their genuine feelings. The first and most important step in treating depression is usually to begin talking about it. That is a lesson that the aviation sector should learn.