On Friday, April 2, 2010, representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration announced that the policy banning pilots from operating planes while being medicated with antidepressants. It will now allow pilots to fly while being treat with one of four approved medications and their generic equivalents – Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro. In the past, pilots who had to be treated with antidepressant medication were grounded, under the belief that antidepressant medications often caused seizures or other harmful side effects that may have put them and their passengers at risk. Pilots were required (and still are) to provide certified documentation of a medical evaluation, so any pilot that wanted to continue to fly would have to either delay treatment for this debilitating disease, or self-medicate and lie about their condition, a federal criminal offense.
FAA administrator Randy Babbitt stated that pilots suffering from depression who have self-medicated are encouraged to come forward about their condition, and will not be punished. “We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression. Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties,” he said in a statement. Although pilots will be given immunity from punishment by the FAA if they come forward within the next six months, immunity from federal criminal prosecution cannot be guaranteed. Any pilot who wishes to continue flying while being treated with antidepressants must be treated with one of the four approved medications, having been under a doctor’s supervision for at least twelve months, and must obtain a special medical certification (granted on a case-by-case basis).
“Depression is a disease, and it’s treatable just like any other disease. And there is a stigma out there that we want to remove. We want to make the skies safer, and we believe that this change in the policy will benefit that and achieve that,” Babbitt stated, showing an understanding and awareness of the stigma of mental illness rarely found among those who do not suffer from it themselves or are not closely intimated with someone who does. Although I am not a pilot and do not intend to follow that career path, I have been successfully treated for moderate depression with Zoloft for the past six years, and I can attest to its safety and the general lack of major side effects – the worst side effect I have ever encountered with this drug is mild nausea.
By recognizing that mild to moderate depression can now be safely treated and giving pilots amnesty for past actions, I believe that the FAA is doing a great service to current pilots as well as those who have been grounded and may now seek to return to the skies. Safety is a definite concern, but the four drugs the FAA has approved for usage have been proven to lack harmful side effects in the major of users, which was the reason for the past ban. Forcing pilots to either leave their jobs to be treated or self-medicate are both unfair given recent strides in treating mental illness.
Hopefully, this transition will go smoothly for all and will help achieve Babbitt’s goal in removing the stigma associated with mental illness, and make for safer skies and healthy pilots.
To follow one pilots personal story, follow Collin Hughes on Twitter: @ProzacPilot
Ahlers, Michael. “FAA to Allow Pilots to Fly While on Antidepressants.” CNN.com. 4/2/2010 http://www.cnn.com/2010/TRAVEL/04/02/pilots.depression/index.html
Glass, Kathryn. “FAA to Lift Ban on Antidepressant Usage.” Fox Business. 4/2/2010. http://www.foxbusiness.com/story/markets/industries/transportation/flying-high-antidepressants/?loomia_ow=t0:s0:a46:g33:r1:c1.000000:b32431530:z7