A paper on Human Factors and Physiology of flight- how depression affects the pilot’s mental and physical capabilities

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Human Factors and Physiology of flight

Depression in Pilots

Depression is currently also referred to as “Psychiatry’s common cold,” a phrase that was recently coined to probably stress on the prevalence of the disorder in modern times. Reports from previous research indicate that roughly 10 to 20 million individuals in the United States suffer from this disorder to the extent of requiring treatment (Grady, 2002). A great deal of research notes that there is a possibility of suffering from poor mental health due to working for long hours. It has been established that mental health problems can negatively affect performance at work.  Pilots often suffer from poor physical and psychological health arising from the complexity of the procedures they are required to perform. Piloting is undoubtedly one of the most demanding professions characterized by unhealthy eating, reduced sleep, and so forth.

Early morning arrivals, coping with multiple time zones, and mid-night departures, are some of the factors that challenge and compromise the vigilance of pilots. Butcher (2002) notes that mental health issues can have negative implications on performance at work. Depending on the job and its nature, a mental health issue at work poses varying consequences and impact. In some careers, mental health issues/ and or human aspects can have a negative implication on mental acuity with theoretically demoralizing repercussions. The aerospace industry is undoubtedly one of the sectors wherein safety is a critical factor, in the sense that even a single and small mistake can adversely affect the safety of passengers onboard. Typically, commercial airline pilots are subjected to a rigorous selection and training process and, after qualifying, regular medical reviews among other competency checks are conducted throughout their career. As such, deliberate mistakes and destructive behaviors are rarely expected from the pilots, and in case they happen, the motivation of the pilot is often not understood. 

The recent crash of German wings Flight, which claimed 150 lives, has triggered unending debates and questions on the physical and mental health of pilots. According to the reports from the investigators, the co-pilot, who had earlier been diagnosed with suicidal tendencies and depression, deliberately engineered the crash (Aviation Safety Network, 1999). However, the pilot had not revealed this information to his employers. This is not an isolated case. Around two decades ago, an EgyptAir Boeing 767 descended shortly after take-off, claiming the lives of 217 persons. Inconclusive evidence determined that the relief first officer deliberately caused the crash. Moreover, in 1997, 104 people died following the crash of Silk Air Flight 185 destined for Singapore. In this case, “multi-work related difficulties” were cited as the cause of the crash. This wide, recurrent matter has further stretched to include the discussion on whether pilots diagnosed with depression should be allowed to work, even if they are under medication. The aeromedical regulatory authorities have recently expressed their unwillingness to allow pilots to use selective serotonin receptor inhibitors (SSRIs), as research shows that they could adversely affect the central nervous system (Akin & Chaturvedi, 2003).

The incidences mentioned above are enough proof that although pilots hold an authoritative position, they are just humans like the rest of the population. Various authors have established a relationship between the performance of pilots and life-stress (Bor, Field & Scragg, 2002; Lowenthal et al., 2000). Green (1985), for instance, notes that individuals undergoing life-stressors might be more prone to committing mistakes since their minds are focused towards stressor as opposed to the task at hand. Although pilots can ensure that life-stressors do not interfere with their performance, there are specific stressors that can profoundly affect this ability. Christy (1975) agrees that even the most active pilots “under some combination of stresses—intrapersonal or interpersonal—may develop personality reactions, anxiety, somatic symptoms, with reduced effectiveness and inadequate functioning (p. 310).” Lowenthal et al., (2000) theorizes that stress has an indirect weakening effect on performance, through sleep disruption and weakening a person’s ability to pay attention.

Chappelow (1989) explored the results of 149 British military flying investigations, which were mainly psychological in nature and adopted data from survivor interviews, regulations, personal experiences, eyewitness records, cocktail examination, flight data recordings, among other sources of information. The investigating psychologists created three categories of human contributing factors, namely major, minor, or possible. According to the reports from the author, life-stress, which is generally any domestic or personal occurrence that may make one worried or anxious, contributed to 11% of the total accidents. A direct link was established between accidents and stressful life. Moreover, the reports indicated that cognitive failure was to blame for 33% of the total cases. Out of the 26 incidences where cognitive failure was reported to be the contributing factor, nine of those cases were caused by errors of omission (things the crew were pretty familiar with), and 19 of them entailed performing one action in place of another.

In yet another somewhat similar study, Platenius & Wilde (1989) conducted a survey comprising of civilian pilots to create a link between accidents and life events. The authors surveyed more than 8,800 Canadian airline pilots. Afterward, the researchers analyzed each of the items listed in the questionnaire in an attempt to unravel whether any differentiated between non-accident and accident pilots. Although the analysis exposed multiple “accident markers,” separation, business decisions, and divorce preoccupations were noted to be the most prevalent. These two studies are reflective of the fact that life-stress affects a pilot’s performance. Moreover, the studies suggest potential ways in which life-stress can indirectly or direct weaken the pilot’s performance. One of these ways is that it may reduce both the quality and quantity of sleep, thus causing fatigue. In addition to that, it may minimize motivation at work and also negatively affect a person’s affective state (Young, 2008). This will, in turn, lead to anger, anxiety, and frustrations. These mood states can negatively change the cockpit’s interpersonal environment, and this could contribute to poor crew resource management. If it reaches a point that life-stress makes one dissatisfied or depressed, then it is expected that a pilot’s task engagement and motivation may reduce (Young, 2008). It is also anticipated that a crewmember may portray signs of hostility or withdrawal, leading to an interpersonal atmosphere that may prompt poor exchange of information concerning vital tasks.

In summary, this paper attempts to show how depression affects the pilot’s mental and physical capabilities. Using the relevant examples from the German wings Flight and other similar cases, along with studies explaining the link between life-stress and accidents, this paper unravels numerous ways in which depression can trigger accidents. One of these ways is that depression can reduce both the quality and quantity of sleep, causing fatigue which, in turn, negatively influences the performance of the pilot. Besides that, depression has been proven to reduce one’s motivation at work, not to mention the fact that it also alters a person’s affective state negatively. Collectively, these factors reduce coordination and task performance in the cockpit.

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