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Thousands of pilots have suicidal thoughts each day, study says, with industry under a ‘veil of secrecy’

BY HENRY BODKIN, THE TELEGRAPH

Gendarmes and rescuers from the Gendarmerie High-Mountain Rescue Group working at the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus A320 near Le Vernet, French Alps, 2015

More than 4,000 commercial flights on any given day are being flown by pilots who have experienced suicidal thoughts, a landmark study of the airline industry suggests.

An international survey of pilots by Harvard University found that 4.1 per cent had contemplated killing themselves at least once in the previous fortnight, and 12.6 per cent met the criteria for depression.

Pilots diagnosed with acute depression are automatically deemed unfit to fly, but experts have warned that many cover up their symptoms for fear of losing their careers.

The study was conducted in the wake of the 2015 Germanwings tragedy, when a pilot suspected of being mentally ill deliberately crashed his airliner into the French Alps, killing 150 people.

Its authors said there is a “veil of secrecy” surrounding mental health problems in the cockpit. Last night, however, the British psychiatrist behind the study said screening for depression would be pointless as diagnosis would rely on pilots being honest.

“We found that many pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that they are not seeking treatment due to the fear of negative career impacts,” said Professor Joseph Allen, who led the research.

Depression, which affects people’s ability to concentrate and process information, can present as a feeling of failure or listlessness and loss of interest in the task at hand. The new study, which is published in the journal Environmental Health, is significant because most existing data on depression is held by airlines and aviation authorities but is largely kept private.

Almost 3,500 pilots responded to the anonymous survey, although of these more than 1,100 refused to answer questions relating to mental health.

A greater proportion of male than female pilots reported they had experiences “nearly every day” of loss of interest, feeling like a failure and thinking they would be better off dead. However, female pilots were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

The study also found a link between depression and higher usage of sleep aid medication.

Rob Hunter, head of flight safety at the British Airline Pilots’ Association, has called for pilots to be routinely insured against being forced to give up flying due to poor mental health, a recommendation that came out of the Germanwings investigation.

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