Could your pilot’s mood be flying too low for safety? Depression in pilots a real concern!

Mental Health

By pH health care professionals

If you recently flew somewhere for the holidays, you probably had a lot on your mind! Whether your pilot was depressed was probably not one of them. However, pilots need to be especially proactive about depression because they are responsible for the lives of everyone on board.

Recent research shows that there are many pilots with depression, but they may be hesitant to seek treatment. Their hesitance is likely partially due to the stigma associated with having a mental illness.   

An anonymous 2015 survey found that 12.6 percent of the 1,800+ pilots surveyed met the threshold for depression, and that 4.1 percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the two weeks prior to the survey. In comparison, an estimated 6.7 percent of U.S. adults overall experienced a major depressive episode over the past year.

Pilots who used higher levels of sleep-aid medication were more likely to be depressed, as were those who experienced sexual or verbal harassment. In many cases, the depression may be undiagnosed and go untreated for fear of losing their career in the airline industry.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the past would not certify anyone who used “mood-altering medication.” The agency said the reasoning was twofold: “(t)he underlying condition that requires the medication and the potential adverse side effects from the medication itself.” However, clinically depressed pilots would be permitted to return to flying after successful treatment. However, since 2010, that is no longer the case.

Pilots who are on antidepressants and have undergone treatment are no longer banned from flying, so long as they meet certain qualifications, including that they have been clinically stable for at least six months and do not have psychosis or suicide ideation (you can read the full guidelines from the FAA here). The goal was to bring to the surface any pilots who were lying about their use of medication or ignoring the signs of depression for fear of losing their licenses.

However, in 2015, millions around the world watched the news in horror, discovering that Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into a French mountainside, prompting investigations into the co-pilot’s mental health status.

Today, depression affects millions. The more we can talk about it and bring the issue to light, the better off we’ll all be. Screening for depression and seeking out help can save lives.

What are the symptoms of depression?

Some of the symptoms of depression include:

  • Ongoing sad, anxious or empty feelings.

  • Feeling hopeless.

  • Feeling guilty, worthless or helpless.

  • Feeling irritable or restless.

  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once found enjoyable, including sex.

  • Feeling tired all the time.

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details or making decisions.

  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, a condition called insomnia, or sleeping all the time.

  • Overeating or loss of appetite.

  • Thoughts of death and suicide or suicide attempts.

  • Ongoing aches and pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease with treatment.

What are some options for preventing or treating depression?

  • Medication and psychological counseling. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who can prescribe medications to help, but many also benefit from talking to a counselor as well.

  • Bright light therapy. By mimicking natural outdoor light, light therapy can lift your mood. Research has found bright light therapy to be effective when combined with antidepressants.

  • Meditation and aerobic exercise. Researchers found a significant drop in symptoms of depression when study participants completed eight weeks of “MAP training,” which included two sessions per week of meditation (30 minutes) and moderate aerobic exercise (30 minutes).

  • Nutrition. There are natural options that may benefit people with depression. Talk to a health care professional about whether these are safe options for you. Here are a few examples:

    • Fish oil: May be helpful for depression in certain people with an omega-3 deficiency. (In areas where consumption of foods with omega-3 is high, people tend to have lower rates of depression.)

    • Saffron: Might increase the levels of serotonin (responsible for mood) and other chemicals in the brain.

    • SAMe: Is an amino acid that appears to provide benefit to people with depression.

    • St. John’s wort: Has been helpful for depression both in research studies and clinical practice.

Be proactive and talk to somebody about depression. Here are some mental health resources you can view now: click here.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.


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