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Depression and the Commercial Pilot

Being a commercial pilot has its perks, travel to exotic places, a cool uniform and those breath-taking views of the sky. But that job can come with a side of something much more sobering: Depression.

As was highlighted by the tragic incident that unfolded at Matsieng Airfield in Botswana this weekend. A Commercial Pilot committed suicide by intentionally crashing a Beechcraft King Air into the clubhouse after an altercation with his spouse. Although these actions must be condemned in the strongest terms, one can just wonder if this incident could have been prevented if the pilot had reached out to someone for help.

A recent study of the mental health of commercial pilots, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, suggests that depression is a major problem for pilots. The first to document mental health for this particular field, the study relied on a web survey of international pilots that contained a range of questions about their condition over the prior two weeks. Questions included whether they felt like failures, had trouble falling or staying asleep, or felt they were better off dead. (Those questions are part of a depression screening tool called the PHQ-9.) Other questions involved pilots’ flight habits, their use of sleep aids and alcohol, and whether they have been sexually or verbally harassed on the job.

Of the 1,848 pilots who responded to the depression screening portions of the questionnaire, 12.6 % met the threshold for depression. In addition, 4.1 % of those respondents reported having suicidal thoughts at some point during the two weeks before taking the survey. The researchers found that pilots who were depressed were also more likely to take sleep aids and report verbal or sexual harassment.

Airline pilot organizations and occupational safety experts assure that airline travel is still safe. But the study continues a conversation about pilot psychology that has been in full swing since a German pilot committed suicide by crashing his plane in 2015.

Since then, calls for better statistics on pilot suicide have grown louder, the statistics that do exist suggest that the number of actual suicides among pilots is very small. However, limitations in data, the possibility of under-reporting, and infrequent data collection all challenge a complete understanding of that facet of pilots’ mental health.

This latest mental health study has its own limitations, including the fact that it relies on self-reporting and a relatively sample size compared to total pilot numbers worldwide. The cause of the reported depression also remains unclear.

But if the depression rate for commercial pilots really is nearly 13%, it almost doubles the international rate of about 7%. Though future work is necessary to confirm these results, this study provides an initial glimpse into the health of the people who make the nation’s airlines tick and emphasizes the importance of figuring out ways to improve their mental health and quality of life.

More often than not a Pilot suffering from depression is afraid to seek help as it may negatively impact his medical fitness to fly and as a result, they may lose their license and ultimately their employment, all this adds to the stress that they are already enduring.

In South Africa there is a dedicated group of individuals that have made it their mission to aid pilots in need. Mayday South Africa.

Mayday-SA has its roots in the Airline Pilots Association’s (ALPA-SA) Peer-to-Peer Programme. During 2011 a small group of airline pilots began ALPA’s Peer-to-Peer – an initiative to provide volunteer support to fellow pilots who are experiencing difficult circumstances such as the impact of accidents and incidents, or life crises. Peer-to-Peer fills the gap that exists within the industry for supporting the emotional wellbeing of pilots. The key benefit of Peer-to-Peer is that, as pilots, the volunteers understand the unique stressors and demands of the operational environment. The concept of a peer support programme is relatively new in South Africa, although an established model internationally.

In August 2012 representatives of many of the major constituencies in South African Aviation met at Rand Airport in commemoration of the Tzaneen Albatross disaster. The gathering’s purpose was to discuss a proposal to establish an independent body to provide support to all license holders across all Southern African aviation sectors in times of stress and emotional upheaval. Overwhelming support was given by those gathered to proceed with such an initiative and establish what has become Mayday-SA.

Mayday-SA was established in 2013 as a Sec 21 Company to provide Peer-to-Peer support to aviation license holders in relation to Critical Incident Response (trauma prevention arising from accidents and incidents) and Peer Support (e.g. aero-medical license issues; work-performance difficulties; substance dependency; and work relationship challenges). Such support is delivered according to international best practice, adapted to the local South African circumstances

During 2013, Mayday-SA was established as an NPC and has used the year to formulate a strategy that is being implemented. Key focus areas focused on included:

Expanding their support of pilots beyond airlines to the wider aviation industry in Southern Africa.

To make this possible additional Volunteer Peers from the Commercial and Recreational Aviation sectors were added to the core group of pilots from the airlines’ sector. While the SA Pilot Community has been the starting point, they will be extending their support activities to all aviation license holders as capacity and funding permits.

The Team Members have been trained and are skilled in Critical Incident Response and Pilot Wellbeing to international standards.

Mayday-SA’s Peer support model draws from similar structures that have operated for many years in many major global airline environments, where the results have been significantly positive – for the license holder; for the Employer; and for Sponsors of these initiatives. Mayday-SA has a special relationship with Stiftung Mayday in Germany from whom Mayday SA have adopted a number of core dimensions of their model. This has resulted in the positioning of Mayday-SA as an independent entity in SA aviation sector, in a neutral space, and unfettered by commercial, organisational, social and political forces that might hinder delivering on the mandate articulated on that August, 2012 afternoon.

Mayday-SA operate strictly according to the following values:

Guaranteed Confidentiality

Work tirelessly to earn Trust of Pilots

They will create a Safe space

Will always respond with Compassion

Integrity and Honesty is embedded in all they do.


012-333-6000 ASK FOR MAYDAY

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A significant operational event;

Failed line check;

Death of family or friend;

Victim of crime;

Relationship or family issues;

Industrial stress;

Life/career crisis;

Major illness affecting aviation medical;

Any other issue that affects you as an individual, and/or your work.​


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