Is It Safe To Fly High On Anti-Depressants?
What’s the big deal about having airplane pilots fly while they are using anti-depressants? Is the FAA helping the public or putting us in danger by asking pilots to come forward if they use anti-depressants?
First, let’s get this clear, just because an airplane pilot is using anti-depressants doesn’t mean that he or she will intend to crash a plane. Most likely, it would be the depressed pilot that does not use anti-depressants that would likely put a plane in danger. For the FAA to act as Big Brother and force pilots to admit to anti-depressant use is unhelpful and the controversy over banning or allowing pilots to fly over this, stems more from ignorance than from fact.
The FAA has had a policy that requires pilots to declare if they use anti-depressant. For the FAA it was a precautionary step to avoid pilots flying sedated. But if your doctor prescribed you with medication that will sedate you, he or she will take the time to tell you that the medicine has certain side effects and may advice you to not use it while at work. The prescription bottle would also be labeled with warnings about potential side effects. It would be up to the pilot himself to follow the warnings and avoid taking the medication while flying. The doctor could also prescribe an anti-depressant that doesn’t have impairing side effects so that the pilot could take it without endangering the plane, his passengers or his crew.
Being panicky about having a pilot use anti-depressants is not healthy for the pilot himself, nor for the passengers who board flights. Stigmatizing the pilot who uses anti-depressants creates a scenario where a pilot could stop using the medicine that he or she needs. Without the anti-depressant, the pilot’s emotional state is shaky, which doesn’t make it safe for anyone.
The move by the FAA to allow pilots who use anti-depressants to come forward seems safe on the surface, but personally, it only re-enforces the stigma. The FAA wants to assure the public that these pilots are fit to fly and that the medicines they take won’t endanger their safety. Yet, it also could backfire and discourage anti-depressant use among pilots who need it. Current pilots who are not yet taking anti-depressants may not want to seek the help they need for fear of being “blacklisted” as one of those pilots who use anti-depressants.
Imagine if the DMV in your state forced you to declare in your drivers’ license application if you use anti-depressants. Not only would it feel like a violation of your privacy, but it would make you a bit paranoid about what providing such information could do in the future. Where would that information go? Who will else will know about it? Will the DMV inform your employer?
The DMV will use some logic saying that you need to answer the question because you will no doubt carry passengers in your car and that it is essential for the DMV to make sure your passengers will be safe based on what prescription you take.
The truth is that it is not the business of the DMV to know if you take anti-depressants or not because they are not the ones monitoring you when you take your medication. Same with the FAA, pilots are intelligent enough to judge when it’s safe or not to take their anti-depressant. If we trust them to fly a plane to begin with, we should trust that they will follow the prescription bottle’s warnings.
The FAA’s old policy of banning pilots who were using anti-depressants from flying is as unhelpful as the new policy of “allowing” pilots to fly if they use certain anti-depressants. The Wall Street Journal reported on this issue and cited the FAA’s position:
Starting Monday, the agency will consider granting waivers that will allow pilots to fly while taking Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa or Lexapro, as well as their generic equivalents.
Medical experts and mental-health organizations supported the move, noting that untreated depression itself has an impact on job performance. They cautioned that the FAA needed to monitor the changes and keep pilots’ confidentiality in mind.
From the public’s point of view, the FAA has the responsibility to make sure flying is safe for passengers. The FAA must oversee airlines’ operations and make sure they are meeting safety standards, etc. They also get to license pilots and other personnel.
On the anti-depressant issue, the FAA wants to avoid having an unstable pilot from doing something that will endanger his and passengers’ well-being. Other government agencies also try to assure the public’s safety. Police departments, for example, also offer psychological evaluations to make sure their men and women are fit to serve. The goal is to assure the public that they can put their lives in the hands of these individuals.
The reality is that no one really knows when someone is going to snap. We have shooting rampages and other violent acts that where committed by people who were not even taking anti-depressant medication. Often times the aggressor was on drugs or alcohol which didn’t mix well with some ongoing emotional instability. Perhaps being on anti-depressants would have made a difference.
It’s common knowledge that many pilots are actually alcoholics. I’ve had flight attendant friends confirm this. Alcoholism is an epidemic in the airline industry and a sign that there is something really wrong with our pilots. Why not encourage them to seek help, get them the treatment they need to be more mentally healthy? Why does it seem like it’s OK for some pilots to be alcoholics, but not depressed?
It’s time that we start addressing mental health in the airline industry, but not in a way that stigmatizes people. Make it optional for pilots to declare if they are using anti-depressants or not. If they are using these medications is because they want to get better. The public too needs to be more aware of their own prejudices towards people that use anti-depressants. When they do, they will find out that most of the time their irrational fears are only detrimental to their own selves.