A significant event occurred recently, where professionals in the aviation industry converged to discuss the critical obstacles to accessing mental health care in this sector.
The meeting was triggered by an alarming incident of an off-duty pilot trying to sabotage a commercial flight in October thus, emphasizing the need for supportive and accessible mental health support system for pilots and crews.
Jennifer Homendy, Chairwoman of National Transportation Safety Board, pointed out a prevailing culture that leaves aviation professionals with no choice but lie or keep quiet when they are in need of assistance, potentially compromising safety standards.
“That is not safety. We can’t have that”, she said as she contemplated the difficulties faced by pilots and air traffic controllers when they open up about their mental conditions due to career concerns.
The sitting was initiated after the arrest of pilot Joseph Emerson who was accused of tampering with an Alaska Airlines plane en route.
In a comprehensive interview carried out by The New York Times while he was behind bars, Emerson gave psychological reasons for his actions which he linked to taking psychedelic mushrooms weeks before the event.
According to FAA regulations on aviation industry, both physical and psychological aspects have to be disclosed along with any medications taken by pilots (FAA).
But many industry professionals hesitate to talk about their mental issues because it might affect their careers.
NTSB Chairwoman Homendy revealed that only about 0.1% of medical certificate applicants who admit having health problems are rejected by FAA.
However, she warned that this figure is not particularly representative given that cases related to mental health among pilots and controllers are usually less reported than they really are.
During a panel discussion United Airlines First Officer Troy Merritt shared his story of voluntarily grounding himself for mental healthcare search (Merritt).
He talked about how treatment has changed him stating that he no longer suffers from depression or anxiety.
However, Merritt showed how laborious his process will be as he returns back including costly testing and assessments costing him over $8,000.
Merritt’s application for a special issuance medical certificate is awaiting FAA review, which is expected to last from six to twelve months.
In spite of the hardships, Merritt confirmed his choice to prioritize his mental health while expressing optimism about coming back as a happier, healthier and more effective pilot.
In pointing out that reduced barriers would have led to early intervention, Merritt called for better access to mental healthcare in aviation.
The FAA responded by announcing plans to reconsider rules pertaining to mental health among pilots and air traffic controllers (FAA).
The agency is planning on establishing a rulemaking committee whose job will be identifying and removing any remaining barriers discouraging reporting and seeking mental health care by professionals of the aviation industry. This committee should provide recommendations to the FAA by March 2024.
NTSB Chairwoman Homendy suggested for amnesty provisions in the new regulations that would allow honest disclosure of mental health issues without fear of the consequences (Homendy).
She further argued for simplifying the prolonged and complicated process of obtaining medical certificates considering it is an unnecessary red tape.
Homendy placed emphasis on how important it was to expedite certification processes due to her understanding that pilots are often strained financially, spending huge amounts on tests and assessments that their insurance policies do not cover.
To sum it up, the aviation industry should focus on the need to change current rules to promote openness and ways of making mental health support accessible by all crew members.
The FAA commitment to reviewing regulations and various efforts made by stakeholders in tackling these problems is an important stride towards the welfare and safety of individuals in the aviation industry.