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FAA to create new committee to support pilots’ mental health challenges, change stigma

SEATTLE, Wash. — The Federal Aviation Administration announced it will create a new committee to support pilots and their mental health challenges, as reported by our sister station KIRO 7 News.

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The announcement comes after an off-duty pilot was accused of trying to shut down a plane’s engine midflight after departing from Paine Field Airport in Everett. According to court documents, Joseph Emerson said he had a “nervous breakdown.”

New committee to address pilot mental health

The new committee is called the Pilot Mental Health Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC), which will include medical experts and aviation and labor representatives.

The committee will focus on breaking down barriers that prevent pilots from reporting mental health issues to the agency.

“Mental health care has made great strides in recent years, and we want to make sure the FAA is considering those advances when we evaluate the health of pilots,” FAA administrator Mike Whitaker wrote in a statement on the agency’s website.


Read: Alaska Airlines pilot accused of trying to cut engines midflight pleads not guilty

Pilots must report certain mental health conditions to their aviation medical examiners, who are trained to determine the pilot’s fitness to fly.

The agency will finalize the rulemaking committee and appoint a panel of experts in the coming weeks.

It will focus on several efforts, including:

  • Increasing mental health training for medical examiners.
  • Supporting industry-wide research and clinical studies on pilot mental health.
  • Hiring additional mental health professionals to expand in-house expertise and to decrease wait times for return-to-fly decisions.
  • Completed clinical research and amended policy to decrease the frequency of cognitive testing in pilots using antidepressant medications.
  • Increasing outreach to pilot groups to educate them on the resources available.

The FAA said it will also work with the ARC to address recommendations from the July 2023 Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General report on Pilot Mental Health Challenges.

Read: ‘One close call is one too many:’ Senators discuss preventing airport runway near misses

Aviation Expert

KIRO 7 spoke with John Nance, a former Alaska Airlines captain and a former Air Force pilot, who has more than 50 years of flying experience.

He said many pilots and crew members he had worked with suffered from mental health challenges.

“Our biggest problem in the overall aspect of airline flying as pilots and even flight attendants is depression. Anything you do for depression, you’re supposed to report immediately to your FAA dock, if it involves medication especially or any disruption,” he explained.

He said many pilots face internal challenges around the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues. But what makes this issue more complicated is that seeking help could affect a pilot’s career, he said.

“This is a very difficult subject because we certainly want to be supportive in all respects to our crew members, cabin crew as well as the cockpit crew, but by the same token, we have a situation where your career is to the certain extent in peril by the very act of seeking help,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of pressure on someone who’s not feeling up to par, who’s feeling depressed or who has been feeling badly at times because no matter how upstanding they are, they know that if they turn themselves in, so to speak, to get help, that help is going to interdict their profession.”

Because there is a perceived stigma around mental health struggles, Nance said, many pilots are not sure when they should seek help.

“Most of us are not psychologists. Most of us are not trained in that area. Exactly when do you pull the emergency brake on something that has been bothering you, even though you know it’s going to impact your career? Those are things we don’t really have a lot of guidance on,” he said.

Nance said the new committee is a great step in the right direction to addressing this issue, however, it will take some time to find a long-term solution to solve a complicated matter.

“The FAA is doing exactly what we need the FAA to do. Not be knee-jerk about this. In other words. Not just slamming new procedures and without really anybody knowing whether they are effective or necessary, but deciding to study the situation,” he said. “Complex problems need complex solutions. They (FAA) are at their best, not so much in rulemaking, but in mentoring this industry and that’s when they really shine, and that’s what I see them doing at this point.”

Passengers

We spoke with people near Paine Field Airport about the new committee.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Roxanne Miller.

Miller, who has served in the U.S. Military, said she understands the experience of working high-risk jobs, including pilots.

She said many pilots face a significant amount of pressure on the job.

“People’s lives are in their hands every day. Puts a lot of pressure on them. Slightest mistake, if they go left instead of right, it could cost them their life,” she said. “I feel safer knowing that people are willing to come forward beforehand (through the new committee) versus after or not at all.”

Read: Off-duty pilot accused of trying to shut off plane’s engines midflight

Jonas Dow was also supportive of the new committee.

“The more awareness, I’m sure it’s all going to make flights safer in the long run,” Dow said.

However, he hopes the FAA will focus on addressing the perceived stigma around pilot mental health as he believes it’s one of the root issues.

“I think what they need to also address is the stigma attached to pilots coming forward and voluntarily acknowledging mental health issues and the risks they probably put themselves to in their careers by acknowledging an issue and perhaps getting sent away or not retired or not return to work after they go and get that sort of treatment,” he said.

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