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Airplane pilot mental health and suicidal thoughts: a cross-sectional descriptive study via anonymous web-based survey
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Details:
  • Pubmed ID:
    27974043
  • Pubmed Central ID:
    PMC5157081
  • Funding:
    T42 OH008416/OH/NIOSH CDC HHS/United States
  • Document Type:
  • Collection(s):
  • Description:
    Background

    The Germanwings Flight 9525 crash has brought the sensitive subject of airline pilot mental health to the forefront in aviation. Globally, 350 million people suffer from depression–a common mental disorder. This study provides further information on this important topic regarding mental health especially among female airline pilots. This is the first study to describe airline pilot mental health–with a focus on depression and suicidal thoughts–outside of the information derived from aircraft accident investigations, regulated health examinations, or identifiable self-reports, which are records protected by civil aviation authorities and airline companies.

    Methods

    This is a descriptive cross-sectional study via an anonymous web-based survey administered between April and December 2015. Pilots were recruited from unions, airline companies, and airports via convenience sampling. Data analysis included calculating absolute number and prevalence of health characteristics and depression scores.

    Results

    One thousand eight hundred thirty seven (52.7%) of the 3485 surveyed pilots completed the survey, with 1866 (53.5%) completing at least half of the survey. 233 (12.6%) of 1848 airline pilots responding to the Patient Health Questionnaire 9 (PHQ-9), and 193 (13.5%) of 1430 pilots who reported working as an airline pilot in the last seven days at time of survey, met depression threshold–PHQ-9 total score ≥ 10. Seventy-five participants (4.1%) reported having suicidal thoughts within the past two weeks. We found a significant trend in proportions of depression at higher levels of use of sleep-aid medication (trend test z = 6.74, p < 0.001) and among those experiencing sexual harassment (z = 3.18, p = 0.001) or verbal harassment (z = 6.13, p < 0.001).

    Conclusion

    Hundreds of pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms perhaps without the possibility of treatment due to the fear of negative career impacts. This study found 233 (12.6%) airline pilots meeting depression threshold and 75 (4.1%) pilots reporting having suicidal thoughts. Although results have limited generalizability, there are a significant number of active pilots suffering from depressive symptoms. We recommend airline organizations increase support for preventative mental health treatment. Future research will evaluate additional risk factors of depression such as sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances.

    Electronic supplementary material

    The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12940-016-0200-6) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.