Viewpoint: We Need a New Conversation Around Pilot Mental Health

Lee Woodward, Skyborne CEO

Credit: Skyborne Airline Academy

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the FAA’s program to evaluate pilots with mental health challenges has found that “opportunities exist to further mitigate safety risks.” Following this, the FAA has now established a Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), aimed at addressing mental health issues early on. The FAA “expects the committee to provide recommendations on breaking down the barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues to the agency.”

This action, while long overdue, is critical to overcoming the stigma around pilot mental health. Disclosure reluctance will surely continue for as long as pilots believe they have automatically placed their jobs in jeopardy by mentioning any mental health struggles they might be experiencing. And that’s why it’s important that while the FAA acknowledges there is an issue with the current system, it must have a fundamental rethink about the right implementations through the ARC.

A new approach to pilot training – whether in the commercial, business or charter sectors –  should begin from the very first day of any flight program, ensuring those entering the industry are better equipped to look after their mental health throughout their flying careers. 

The Current System

Anyone wishing to become a pilot in the U.S., whether professionally or recreationally, must gain a medical certificate, which requires providing answers to a series of questions aimed at identifying whether someone is suffering from a restricted mental health condition.

This process also requires pilots to report any health professional visits and disclose all physical and psychological conditions and medications. Fines can be issued for failing to make disclosures, while the aviation medical examiner can request additional testing to determine suitability for certification.

While this is a rigorous process, it’s important to note that the declaration of treatable mental health conditions, or the taking of certain permitted medications, does not automatically disqualify a pilot from obtaining certification. Instead, it simply requires the correct reporting and monitoring programs to be put in place, with approvals granted on a case-by-case basis. A similar approach is in place in Europe, where pilots are assessed psychologically before recruitment.

Early Identification

The importance of taking mental health seriously and the need for a better approach – as underlined by the ARC – isn’t in doubt. Regulators have already responded by considering introducing random psychological screening to minimize the risk of pilots flying with undiagnosed mental health problems.

At Skyborne, we believe such a move approaches the challenge of poor mental health back to front.

Rather than focusing on detecting serious mental health issues once they have developed, we believe in building a supportive industry in which people are comfortable self-reporting on their mental health from the earliest stages. This would ensure pilots get the support they need prior to more serious challenges developing. The industry should also make training people in positive mental health habits a priority to reduce the chances of their wellbeing deteriorating in the first place.

Promisingly, we’ve begun to see airlines recognizing this, with Delta, for instance, launching its Flourishing Index to measure employees’ physical, emotional, social and financial wellbeing. This is available to students as soon as they join the Propel Flight Academy by Delta, which Skyborne runs in partnership from our Florida base.

Flight schools are able to play an important role in developing the mentally resilient aviation workforce of the future, delivering a concerted effort to produce rounded graduates who can make sound decisions in potentially difficult situations.  

We’ve made supporting students a priority at Skyborne from day one, via our partnership with the charity Red Umbrella, which is the world’s number one provider of mental health first aid courses. The initiative ensures our students in the U.S. and the UK can access world-class mental health support and professional assistance via ‘Care Coins’. This credit allows them to connect with professional therapists throughout their training journey, whether related to their studies, or their personal lives.

Good Habits

Such a commitment to better mental health also improves flight training, with training in one area enhancing the other. Best practice flying behaviors – whether that’s offering and accepting assistance, delegating where necessary or requesting help early – can be underlined when teaching positive mental health habits.

While our industry could introduce random psychological screening, I believe this should be viewed as a last line of defense. Ultimately, we should aspire to create a culture that makes such a move almost redundant. There will be limited need for psychological screening in an industry in which pilots are fully trained in positive mental health habits and feel confident self-reporting any challenges they face at the earliest stages.

Such an approach could become the cornerstone of a safe, supportive and inclusive aviation industry – delivering the promises of the upcoming ARC in mitigating safety risks. 

Lee Woodward is CEO of Skyborne Airline Academy, a training facility located in Vero Beach, Florida, and at Gloucestershire Airport in the UK.