Antidepressant rule change for US pilots

I have written in the past about the out-dated and frankly ludicrous rules for pilots when it comes to mental health issues.

Very recently, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US finally took a step in the right direction by easing rules surrounding antidepressant use in pilots. American pilots can now apply for a special certificate allowing them to fly if they have been successfully treated for mild to moderate depression with a year or more on one of four common antidepressants.

Until now, American pilots have had a blanket no fly rule when it comes to mental health problems.

When I read this positive step, I looked again into the Canadian regulations for pilots with regard to mental health issues and I was pleased to find that Transport Canada was a little ahead of its American counterpart and has also updated regulations in recent months to allow some antidepressant use in pilots.

According to the Transport Canada website, Canadian pilots may now continue flying while being treated with newer SSRI or SNRI medications for several disorders including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders or premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Each situation will be assessed individually and in order to ensure safety for both the pilot and the flying public, the pilot should be stable on the medication for at least four months before returning to the air.

Generally, only one medication may be used at a time in order to qualify for flying privileges.

I believe this is a step in the right direction. Past regulations made it very difficult for a pilot experiencing a mental health issue to seek treatment without losing his or her job. As a result, there were strong incentives for pilots not to disclose their health problems or to self-treat in an inappropriate manner.

Until these new regulations, pilots requiring any ongoing treatment for a psychiatric illness would be unable to fly. In this position, people were forced to decide whether to be open about health issues and risk their career or be dishonest and fly anyway even with an unstable mental illness.

The recent regulation changes acknowledge this problem stating that although the prevalence of depression among pilots is known to be at least six percent, the treatment rate was much lower.

I would rather be on a plane with a pilot or co-pilot who is honest about a medical problem and receiving appropriate treatment. Most other professions, even in areas involving public safety, allow for appropriate management of mental health issues while the individual continues to work and I don't believe the aviation industry should be any different.

Although moving in the right direction, there is still more the aviation industry can do to be rid of out-dated policies and fears surrounding mental illness. Perhaps the assessment could be more skills based. If a pilot can demonstrate (with appropriate testing) that their cognitive functioning is not impaired and they are not experiencing any adverse effects such as drowsiness (this could also be assessed under real life conditions), they should not be restricted.

 

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