Last month's midair breakdown of the JetBlue pilot who had to be restrained by passengers has exposed a flaw in mental health screenings for pilots that should be fixed.
By now you've probably heard the story. On March 27, shortly after JetBlue Flight 191 left New York for LasVegas, the captain, 49-year-old Clayton Osbon, a 12-year veteran pilot, started saying some things that worried his co-pilot. Things like,"We're not going to Vegas" and "Things just don't matter." according to an FBI affidavit.
Passenger David Gonzalez, a former corrections officer from New York City, told ABC news he knew something was wrong when Osbon tried to exit the plane –– while it was in the air. Gonzalez asked the pilot what was wrong. He said Osbon replied, "You'd better start praying right now."
Before long, Osbon screamed, "They’re going to take us down!" Instead, about five men, took him down as the co-pilot guided the plane to an emergency landing in Amarillo, Texas. Since then, he has been charged with interfering with a flight crew and was ordered last week to get psychiatric testing to see if he is fit to stand trial.
Although the specific whys and hows of the crisis are still being unraveled, the more general question is this: Is the system for detecting mental health issues in pilots good enough?
The FAA thinks so. In fact, the FAA Policy on Antidepressants found on the FAA website says:
What does the FAA do if a pilot discloses that he or she is consulting a therapist (e.g., for anxiety) but there is no clinical diagnosis of depression?
A pilot will not be allowed to fly while undergoing treatment. Once the treatment is complete, the pilot may return to flying.
What action does the FAA take when pilots either disclose they are being treated for depression or request treatment?
A pilot will be grounded until all symptoms of the psychiatric condition being treated are improved by the single medication and the pilot is stable for 12 months.
The FAA considers depression a safety hazard that "can lead to distraction and make it difficult for a pilot to focus," the FAA website says.
The site also adds: The public should feel safe with this program. It was designed to allow only well-treated and stable pilots to fly. The pilots will be well monitored, with multiple layers of safeguards.
With the exception of one missing safeguard, thus the flaw. As Bloomberg news reports, the FAA relies on airline pilots to disclose “mental disorders of any sort; depression, anxiety, etc.,” They must say whether they’re using medications or have neurological disorders.
This means that results from the mental health screening is only as accurate as the pilot is honest.
As pilots told CNN, the agency's strict criteria prompt some to hide their conditions."A guy has worked his whole career toward what he's gotten, and he's dealing with issues, what does he do?” asked one pilot. “If he says, 'Hey, I'm depressed,' then the FAA pulls his medical certificates and then there goes his career." Another veteran pilot noted that "pilots are flying around depressed because if they do (admit depression), they'll be grounded."
So one way to improve the mental health screenings is to improve the mental health disclosures. And that takes a change in the cultural attitude and assumptions toward mental illness.
Two years ago, on April 5, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made a very important announcement addressing that very topic when they finally relaxed the ban for pilots who were taking medication for mild to moderate depression, “conditions that now bar them from all flying duties,” a press release said.
“I’m encouraging pilots who are suffering from depression or using antidepressants to report their medical condition to the FAA,” the F.A.A. administrator at the time, J. Randolph Babbitt said then.“We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associate with depression. Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties.”
Don't get me wrong. The FAA has a right to know whether a pilot is mentally fit to serve. But Dr. David Ballard, an expert on mental health policies in the workplace at the American Psychological Association told msnbc.com they also need to know that when addressed, a mental health disorder can be very treatable.
"You obviously don’t want someone who is going to be unable to perform their job duties safely and effectively," Ballard said, "but just because someone has a mental health disorder, that doesn't mean they won’t be able to do their job well."
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