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A first of its kind airline pilot mental health study has revealed that hundreds of commercial pilots that are serving across the globe may be clinically depressed or are having suicidal thoughts.

The study, which was published on December 14 in Environmental Health, comes just months after a depressed Germanwings co-pilot killed 150 people by deliberately crashing a plane into the French Alps. Researchers point out in the study that they have focused on depression and suicidal thoughts for their study.

One key thing pointed out by researchers is that their study is outside of information that traditionally derived from aircraft accident investigations, regulated health examinations, or identifiable self-reports, and that they specifically looked at depressive symptoms because pilots refrain from reporting such symptoms for fear of negative impacts on their careers. Because they resorted to anonymous survey method for their study, nearly 1,850 pilots were more open about their mental health conditions.

The survey was carried out online last year between April and December and pilots from over 50 countries responded. Researchers designed the survey using a mix of questions so as not to suggest a focus purely on mental health conditions in order to minimize potential bias in responses.

The findings were startling: out of the 1,848 pilots who completed the questions about mental health, 12.6 per cent (233) showcased signs of likely depression while 4.1 percent (75) reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous two weeks. 13.5 per cent pilots (193) clearly met the criteria for depression. These findings if combined indicate that one in every four pilots either suffered from depression or had symptoms that indicate a likely depression.

The study also found that 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.

“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 the paper.

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