Risk Factors that Can Affect Pilot Mental Health 

Compared to other professional groups, pilots are unique when it comes to their working conditions and possible causes of stress. And these differences, together with the career structure and regulatory framework, can have a great impact on their mental health. 

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The Risk Factors  Rigid Testing and Evaluation  From the moment pilots apply for training, they are tested to ensure that they have the required skills and the state of mind to do the job. Even after they start working, their cognitive skills and flying aptitude will regularly be scrutinized for them to maintain their license. Not to mention the medical and psychological evaluations that they will have to undergo at least once yearly until they’re 65 of age.   These tests ensure that the pilots are skilled enough and physically and emotionally fit to fly. However, failure in any of these tests can cause them to lose their license and ultimately, their livelihood. The possibility of losing their main source of income and the pressure of passing these evaluations are possible sources of stress.   

Job-Related Sources of Stress  Working Environment  

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It is tiring working long hours and sitting in a confined space. Pilots also have to carry out their tasks while being exposed to noise, vibration and cosmic radiation. The poor air quality and high altitudes can also strain both the pilot’s body and mind.  Work Hours and Lack of Sleep “Managing stress and ensuring a routine of plentiful, high quality sleep are critical to protecting your health,” according to Michael J Breus Ph.D. Pilots often have to endure irregular work hours and frequently changing schedules. Add to this the long work hours and jet lag. Pilots also don’t get enough time to recover before they need to go back to their duties.  Work Difficulties  Pilots have to face the reality that one small mistake can lead to hundreds of lives lost. Difficult situations like system failures, in-flight medical emergencies and the threat of terrorism all add to the burden that pilots must carry.  Personal Stressors  Just like other people, pilots need to face life challenges like the loss of a loved one, illnesses and marital and family problems. The long and ever-changing work hours can also make it hard for pilots to start and maintain relationships, causing emotional issues. Moreover, their constant lack of sleep can impair their social performance.   

Mental Health Conditions 

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Due to the risk factors mentioned above, the mental health of pilots can deteriorate. Some of the mental health conditions that can be found among pilots include depression, anxiety and alcohol and drug abuse. Relationship problems are also very common. “People often don’t realize that depression isn’t just one thing. It can have different causes and presentations. Some people look sad, others are more irritable, some withdraw, and others seem restless,” according to Lisa Moses, PsyD. However, even when some pilots realize that they’re suffering from a mental health condition, they don’t seek help due to two reasons. It’s either they don’t want to risk losing their license or they are afraid of the stigma that is often associated to mental disorders.   

Promoting Mental Well-Being  Now, the question is, what can be done to eliminate these stressors and decrease the chance of mental health conditions from developing? 

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  • Hire qualified psychologists and have them assist with the crew’s selection, training and evaluations. It will also be helpful if they can help identify and eliminate existing work-related stressors. 
  • Medical examiners who conduct the yearly evaluation need to undergo specialized training so that they can properly identify any emotional or cognitive problems that the pilots they examine might have. 
  • It’s even better if the companies can promote mental health instead of just treating them when the issue arises. Pilots should undergo some training that will inform them how they can understand and maintain their optimal mental health. 
  • Support groups can also help pilots that are undergoing extreme stress and are at a high risk of having a mental upset. “Talking to others in similar situations can be a tremendous source of support,” points out Amy Bellows, Ph.D.

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