Personal demons are thought to have driven pilot Andreas Lubitz to end his own life, alongside 149 innocent passengers. This chain of events has sparked questions surrounding mental health and the aviation industry.
Lufthansa was aware that Lubitz had previously been suspended for six months from flight school following a diagnosis of depression. What remains unclear is the level of support the company offered Lubitz.
A concern many psychologists have expressed is that pilots may try to hide their illness to preserve their careers.
The guidance for airlines’ annual medical examinations, developed by the UK Civil Aviation Authority requests doctors to make a “general inquiry about mental health which may include mood, sleep and alcohol use”.
This advice sits somewhere between eyesight tests and skin complaints (however it is important to note that many airlines have more rigorous medical examinations in place).
Professor Cary Cooper from Lancaster University commented to say that the job is indeed a stressful one, but it does tend to attract those who manage stress well.
“Problems are more likely to lie in a private life rather than the demands of flying. The psychological tests appear to be quite cursory and someone with depression or mental health problems is not going to tell their employer’s doctor because of the professional impact.”
If pilots have been prescribed medication to help them with depression or anxiety, they can be grounded and suspended from work. In Lubitz’s case, police found torn up medical notes and a sick note for the day of the incident.
Mental health charities are concerned about people demonising depression as an inevitable route to disaster. Professor Cooper says a big problem is that mental health is stigmatised in all walks of life. He went on to explain that issues such as stress and depression are rarely talked about at work as people are worried about losing their jobs.
“It is still seen as a sign of weakness and when you take a macho task like flying an airplane then it is inevitable people are going to hide personal issues.”
He goes on to say that the big question is how do airlines judge if other people’s mental health is OK? And what can employers do to remove stigma so issues can be discussed openly, without fear of job-loss?
Professor Cooper has called on employers to be more progressing when it comes to dealing with staff issues, adding psychometric tests that could detect problems earlier, providing the data required for positive intervention and counselling.