Hundreds of pilots currently flying are managing
depressive symptoms perhaps without the possibility
of treatment due to the fear of negative career
According to an anonymous survey of nearly 1,850
pilots conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan
School of Public Health 233 (12.6%) airline pilots
meeting depression threshold and 75 (4.1%) pilots
reporting having suicidal thoughts. Although results
have limited generalizability, there are a
significant number of active pilots suffering from
The new findings come a year and a half after a
Germanwings co-pilot who suffered from depression
deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps,
The study is the first to describe airline pilot
mental health—with a focus on depression and
suicidal thoughts—outside of the information derived
from aircraft accident investigations, regulated
health examinations, or identifiable self-reports,
all of which are records protected by civilian
aviation authorities and airline companies.
For those sources of information, there is a strong
disincentive for pilots to accurately report if they
are suffering from depressive symptoms, according to
the study authors.
“We found that many pilots currently flying are
managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that
they are not seeking treatment due to the fear of
negative career impacts,” said Joseph Allen,
assistant professor of exposure assessment science
and senior author of the study.
“There is a veil of secrecy around mental health
issues in the cockpit. By using an anonymous survey,
we were able to guard against people’s fears of
reporting due to stigma and job discrimination.”
Respondents to the web-based survey, conducted
between April and December 2015, came from over 50
The survey was designed with a mix of questions so
as not to suggest a focus on mental health, in order
to minimize potential bias in responses.
The highest percentage of respondents initiated
surveys from the U.S. (45.5%), Canada (12.6%), and
Out of nearly 3,500 who participated in the survey,
1,848 completed the questions about mental health.
Within this group, 233 (12.6%) met the criteria for
likely depression, and 75 (4.1%) reported having
suicidal thoughts within the previous two weeks.
Of 1,430 who reported working as an airline pilot in
the last seven days at the time of the survey, 193
(13.5%) met the criteria for depression.
A greater proportion of male pilots than female
pilots reported that they had experiences “nearly
every day” of loss of interest, feeling like a
failure, trouble concentrating, and thinking they
would be better off dead.
Female pilots were more likely than male pilots to
have at least one day of poor mental health during
the previous month, and were more likely to have
been diagnosed with depression.
The study also found that depression was more likely
among pilots who used higher levels of sleep aid
medication and those who were experiencing sexual or
“Our study hints at the prevalence of depression
among pilots—a group of professionals that is
responsible for thousands of lives every day—and
underscores the importance of accurately assessing
pilots’ mental health and increasing support for
preventative treatment,” said Alex Wu, a doctoral
student at Harvard Chan School and first author on
For more information
Airplane Pilot Mental Health and Suicidal Thoughts:
A Cross-sectional Descriptive Study via Anonymous
Alexander C. Wu, Deborah Donnelly-McLay, Marc G.
Weisskopf, Eileen McNeely, Theresa S. Betancourt,
Joseph G. Allen.
Environmental Health, online December 14, 2016
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health