On November 6th the Federal Air Surgeon made a public statement regarding the FAA's stance on pilot mental health. The statement is similar to both official and unofficial statements the agency has made in the past regarding mental health. The Pilot Mental Health Campaign understands that Dr. Northrop is in a delicate position and must balance competing interests both within and outside her office, but we compel her and the rest of the FAA to do more to address this critical subject.
While we commend the Federal Air Surgeon for encouraging pilots to seek help, this statement is an oversimplification of a process most industry professionals acknowledge is broken.
If a pilot chooses to disclose a mental health diagnosis, this results in immediate grounding of the aviator regardless of symptom severity. Those choosing to use the antidepressant pathway can expect a wait of at least a year while their application flows through the FAA’s labyrinth of archaic systems. This is not “misinformation”, it is fact.
We have verified reports of airmen being grounded for 3 years for disclosing a therapist visit. Their medical certificate was immediately pulled and it was left to them to spend thousands of dollars on unnecessary cognitive tests to prove that they weren’t broken beyond repair. Keep in mind that they were unable to make a living or do any flight training during this time. The process is more than burdensome, it is stigmatizing and counterproductive.
We applaud the FAA’s efforts to add capacity in this area. Indeed, they have managed to increase their psychological staff from 1 to 4. This is a massive increase in percentage terms but given the inefficiency of the FAA’s internal systems, this improvement will likely have little impact on the increasing number of Special Issuance applications.
The .1% statistic (assuming it is correct) does not include the thousands of aviators who give up in desperation or choose never to apply. How many capable young aviators are being kept out of the workforce because of easily treatable conditions, or even conditions that were resolved decades in the past?
Finally, there is surprisingly little evidence to prove that meeting diagnostic criteria for most mental health conditions results in aeromedically significant impairment for the overwhelming majority of conditions.
Bottom line- if pilots weren’t afraid to get help, they would be getting help at the same rate as the general population, we know this is not happening. This is an unacceptable and tragically avoidable situation.
We agree that de-stigmatizing this subject is crucial, but it requires us to be honest. The Pilot Mental Health Campaign looks forward to working with policymakers and other aviation stakeholders who are ready to acknowledge the elephant in the room and address it directly.
The Pilot Mental Health Campaign is a non-partisan grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of pilots by reducing barriers to access healthcare. Learn more at www.pmhc.org.
We encourage everyone concerned about this situation to make their voices heard. This campaign is just getting started, but we'll need resources to make sure policymakers hear our message. The biggest difference you can make today is by making a donation to the Pilot Mental Health Campaign. Every dollar you donate goes to our 100% volunteer powered efforts to bring about the much needed change pilots deserve.
Thank you, PMHC