Airmen say they are afraid to seek mental health care.FAA says it’s listening

For decades, pilots have been reluctant to seek mental health care for fear of losing their licenses. At a safety forum in Washington on Wednesday, pilots and safety experts urged federal regulators to reform rules that prevent pilots from receiving medical treatment.

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For decades, pilots have been reluctant to seek mental health care for fear of losing their licenses. At a safety forum in Washington on Wednesday, pilots and safety experts urged federal regulators to reform rules that prevent pilots from receiving medical treatment.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

WASHINGTON When commercial pilot Troy Merritt realized his anxiety and depression were getting worse, he wanted to seek treatment.

But he hesitated because he was worried about what would happen next.

“I faced months or even years of unemployment and needed to complete a complex certification process to obtain a medical certificate. [certificate] Back away. There’s also the possibility of being told I’ll never fly again,” Merritt said.

“These prospects only exacerbated my anxiety and depression and made important personal health decisions more difficult,” he said.

Merritt, a first officer at United Airlines, spoke Wednesday at a so-called summit in Washington, D.C., devoted to mental health issues in the airline industry.

Pilots and other aviation professionals have described their personal struggles with anxiety, depression and substance abuse and are urging federal regulators to reform rules that often prevent people from seeking treatment for fear of losing their jobs and their medical permission to fly.

The National Transportation Safety Board convened the meeting to encourage aviation professionals to seek treatment if needed and to call attention to policies that might prevent this from happening.

“Safety risks arise from a culture of silence about mental health rather than seeking help,” said NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy.

The Federal Aviation Administration has expressed a willingness to change its policies regarding mental health. This week, the FAA announced the creation of a new advisory group to evaluate the policies and make recommendations to “identify and break down any remaining barriers that prevent pilots and air traffic controllers from seeking mental health care.”

“We need to get people to act early in the process. Early, before things get really bad,” said Penny Giovanetti, the FAA’s senior medical officer. She said the The agency works to “dispel myths and remove barriers.”

Giovanetti acknowledged a lack of trust between the FAA and pilots, who don’t trust the agency’s assurances that they can fly again after receiving a mental health diagnosis.

The vast majority of pilots eventually become certified, Giovanetti said. But she acknowledged that the process can often take months or years, calling these excessive delays the “elephant in the room” that could prevent pilots from seeking treatment.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight again in October after an off-duty pilot was accused of trying to shut down an engine during a Horizon Air flight.

An Oregon grand jury this week declined to indict Joseph Emerson on attempted murder charges, but did charge him with 83 misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment and one count of endangering an aircraft.

Emerson’s family said he suffered from depression but avoided seeking treatment for fear of losing his medical credentials.

Pilots say the practice is common because many people worry that retrieving medical certificates will be expensive and time-consuming if they seek treatment.

“Every week my Instagram, LinkedIn and text messages are flooded with pilots asking for help. What do I do?” said Dr. William Hofmann, a clinical neuroscientist who studies pilots’ avoidance of health care.

“I hope we can do more than contribute to the discussion of how we think about this problem in new ways,” Hoffman said at Wednesday’s summit.

Pilot Troy Merritt said he ultimately decided to seek treatment and is glad he did.

“Today, I have no regrets about taking care of my mental health. It was absolutely the right thing for me to do,” Merritt said.

Merritt said his treatment is going well and he hopes to start flying again within six months to a year. Meanwhile, Merritt said he was lucky to have disability insurance through his union, which supported him while he was grounded, a luxury not all pilots have.

“There are so many untold stories of pilots I know personally who struggle with their mental health. And avoid care because they feel trapped by the system and the choices within the system,” Merritt said.

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Image Source : www.npr.org

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