Pilot mental health focus could enforce social stigma

Tragic headlines have been all over the media for the past week since the horrific Germanwings crash that lead to 150 people’s deaths. It has recently been uncovered and released that the co-pilot thought to be responsible for the crash had severe mental health issues.

The horror of the news reached worldwide, and is likely to have impacts on safety procedures in all countries with major air traffic.

It has been thought that the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit and set the plane onto a collision course, on a day on which he should have been excused from duty, according to a doctor’s note related to depression found torn up in his home.

The knee-jerk reaction to this incident by a lot of airlines has been to ban people being left on their own in a cockpit, and that two members of flight crew should be in the control room at all times.

However, this has been criticised by some in the flying industry as impractical and ignoring the overarching issue: the mental health of pilots.

It can be a stressful job, with the safety of a lot of people in your hands, and grating with so many hours spent in the cockpit, especially on longer flights.

And although pilots are often checked for mental health, it is apparent that some can slip through the net.

Unfortunately, a long term implication of this tragic crash is that mental health in pilots could become even more stigmatised.

People suffering with conditions such as depression and stress can feel frightened and intimidated at the thought of speaking out and seeking help for their issues. Should mental health now become a greater focus in pilot training and flight clearance, pilots may become even more frightened and intimidated about speaking out in case it loses them their clearance to fly, and thus, their job.

Mark Gilmore, who has been an airline pilot for a decade, wrote: “We need to learn to help mentally ill pilots take time out, recover and fly again. We need to de-stigmatise mental health, and we need to remove the fear of acknowledging the issues we might face.”

Instead, stress management techniques could be incorporated into all pilot training and taught to people (in all forms of employment as everyone can benefit from better mental health management) alongside improving mental health care in the country and removing the stigma in society that leads to so many tragedies when people cannot bring themselves to admit they need help.

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