In March 2015, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people onboard.  An investigation found that the co-pilot deliberately steered the plane into the mountainside. It also revealed that he had a history of depression, although the airline company was unaware of this crucial information.

Worldwide, depression affects about 350 million people. Its symptoms, which differ from those of occasional sadness related to disappointment, loss, and other life changes, include persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and loss of interest in work and other activities. Among workers, untreated depression can affect the ability to perform tasks and—as the Germanwings incident shows—in rare instances, can result in devastating consequences.

In one of the first studies of its kind, a NIOSH-funded study published in the journal Environmental Healthlooked at the prevalence of depression among commercial airline pilots. Using an anonymous web-based survey of pilots recruited from unions, airline companies, pilot groups, and aviation safety organizations, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health asked about depression and other health issues. Between April and December 2015, 1,837 airline pilots completed the survey. More than 12% of survey respondents who answered the survey’s health questions met the criteria for depression, with 4% reporting suicidal thoughts within the prior two weeks. In other findings, pilots who reported using medication to aid sleep and who experienced sexual or verbal harassment were significantly more likely to be depressed.

Although this study relied on self-reports and represents a small sample of airline pilots, it indicates that there may be a significant number of working pilots suffering from depressive symptoms. According to researchers, the results highlight the need for the airline industry to increase its support of preventive treatment for depression and other mental health disorders among pilots. Their next step is to study how sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances affect the risk of depression among this group of workers.

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