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Stigma around pilot mental health could push problem underground

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week (8-14 May) pilots have spoken out on proposed new rules that could increase stigma around mental health in the sector.

The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) says that rules proposed by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) as a result of the Germanwings tragedy of 2015 could be counter-productive.

Among others, one of the proposed new rules states that pilots must undergo psychological testing when first employed by an airline.

BALPA has expressed concerns about the effectiveness of any psychological testing on the basis that there are no tests proven to be reliable for accurately determining the true mental state of a pilot.

While BALPA supports the need for psychological assessment, the association argues that if pilots feel they are unable to discuss mental health without fear of losing their job, these issues may be forced underground.

BALPA Head of Flight Safety and aeromedical examiner, Dr Rob Hunter, said:

“If pilots feel they can’t be open with their mental health through fear of losing their job it will only serve to push the problem underground.

“The general stigma around mental health issues is still prevalent in all walks of society and we need to get better at talking about these issues openly.

“Therefore, we need to ensure these new rules support pilots and don’t demonise them, and offer the appropriate support where needed.

“We are currently working with airlines to ensure there are robust peer intervention programmes in place.

“BALPA and the ECA (European Cockpit Association) have also continued to point out to EASA that the use of psychological testing would, sadly, almost certainly not have prevented the Germanwings tragedy.

“It is wrong to assume that anyone suffering with depression is suicidal and furthermore, homicidal, such as was the case with the Germanwings co-pilot.”

EASA’s proposals are expected to be presented to member states in June 2017 but with no final decision being taken before autumn 2017, and any new rules will therefore be fully implemented by autumn 2019.