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Pilots fear revealing mental illness, expected to ‘tough it out’: expert

WATCH ABOVE: If a pilot, like Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, decides to hide an illness decides not to self-report a problem, is there any test that could keep him out of the cockpit? Jennifer Tryon reports.

They spend years training, invest tens of thousands of dollars in education and take on a career wrought with time away from family, odd hours and navigating stressful situations.

Commercial pilots undergo screening before they get their license and throughout their career, but it isn’t easy to detect if they’re grappling with depression or other mental health concerns. In the aviation industry, conceding that you may be unfit to fly could mean stigma or fear of being grounded, one expert says.

“The challenge is these people are invested and passionate about aviation. They worry there’s a risk they will lose their job if they self-report [any issues],” Dr. Suzanne Kearns told Global News.

She’s a pilot and University of Western Ontario professor specializing in aviation safety and education.

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“Beyond that, aviation is a culture that grew out of the military with male-dominated roots, like policing or firefighting. Pilots aren’t encouraged to express their emotions if they feel anxious or overwhelmed. They’re expected to deal with it or tough it out,” she explained.

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READ MORE: How are airline pilots screened for mental health?

Her comments come on the heels of revelations that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had a torn-up sick note in his home. French prosecutors say it appears he hid evidence of an illness from his employers – a doctor’s note had even excused Lubitz from work the day he crashed a passenger plane into a mountain.

On Tuesday, Airbus A320 – heading to Dusseldorf via Barcelona – crashed into the French Alps killing all 150 people on board. By Thursday, investigators revealed the 27-year old locked himself inside the cockpit and deliberately crashed the plane.

Prosecutors wouldn’t say what type of illness – mental or physical Lubitz may have been suffering from. Documents point to “an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment.”

For its part, Lufthansa says Lubitz “not only passed all medical tests but also his flight training, all flying tests and checks.” It admits, though, that there was a “several-month” gap in his training six years ago.

READ MORE: Prosecutors allege Germanwings co-pilot hid illness

Transport Canada says that all commercial pilots are seen by a medical practitioner prior to receiving a medical certificate. After that, medical examiners assess pilots on a “regular basis” based on the type of license, age and health of the pilot.

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Under the federal agency’s guidelines, every pilot’s medical history is reviewed so there are “no signs of psychosis or suicidal behaviour,” it said in an email to Global News.

Typically, there’s an annual or six-month evaluation.

But assessments may do more help than harm. For starters, mental health issues are invisible and evaluations could bring stress and anxiety to those who are trying to mask what they’re going through, Kearns notes.

READ MORE: Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz wanted to ‘destroy’ Germanwings Flight 9525: prosecutor

After pilots have gone through rigorous training and potentially taken on hefty debt for their education, it may be hard to admit something is wrong if there was a chance it would impede their career.

The lifestyle is also difficult: they’re away from home, they battle jet lag and fatigue and they’re working in a time-strapped industry that’s pushing its bottom line.

Capt. Dave Funk says the industry is about self-policing and looking after your colleagues, though. Funk is a former Northwest Airlines captain with Laird & Associates, an aviation security consulting firm.

“As an industry, we’re good at self-screening,” Funk explained. Self-screening entails being cognizant of your own mental state and paying attention to cues from your colleagues.

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READ MORE: Who is Germanwings 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz?

Funk says that crewmembers are trained to watch for signs of mental health concerns in themselves and their peers. Because pilots typically specialize in flying a certain model, they tend to work with the same people.

“Even at a large airline, you know all the other captains and pilots. It’s the small group of you, so you pick up the signs. If they’re continually having bad days, word gets around fast,” he said.

Funk says those in the industry understand the work demands they’re committing to.

READ MORE: How open are Canadians about mental health in the workplace?

A survey released earlier this year warned that four in 10 Canadians wouldn’t tell their boss if they had a mental health problem. But the poll results found that if Canadians knew about a colleague’s mental distress, he or she would help.

The most common reason for withholding concerns? Fear of stigma.

“Even though there is a culture of looking out for each other, mental health isn’t something that’s obvious to everyone. Many pilots could be suffering in isolation and not seeking the help they need,” Kearns said.

READ MORE: Is there enough mental health support for first responders?

A working group on pilot mental health is calling for a “safe zone” so that pilots can come forward with their grievances without any fear of job loss.

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(In one interview, a retired pilot who asked not to be identified told Global News that when he told his employer he was going through family issues, his workplace accommodated his needs with time off and promise of a return to his old posting when he’s ready.)

“The working group recognizes that there may be barriers affecting a frank discussion of mental health issues between an aeromedical examiner and a pilot,” the commentary says.

READ MORE: How many times has a pilot intentionally brought down a plane?

It’s calling for mental health education and simple tweaks to the current assessment, such as asking about family life, their lifestyle and about their routine at work.

Funk suggests that readers shouldn’t be alarmed by this tragedy, and that pilot suicides are extremely rare.

According to Aviation Flight Network there have been eight commercial airline flights since 1976 believed to be attributed to pilot suicide. In 1999, for example, Egypt Air Flight 990 crashed 30 minutes after taking off in New York. An investigation concluded that the first officer deliberately crashed the plane, killing 217 people on board.

READ MORE: Condolences, prayers for Germanwings Flight 4U9525 crash victims

“When you think of the numbers, it’s pretty low risk,” Funk said.

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carmen.chai@globalnews.ca