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Germanwings’ Crash and Mental Illness among Pilots

Abstract

The crash of the Airbus 320 of Germanwings has raised sufficient concerns among the scholars, practitioners and general public. In particular, the issue of mental illness among the aviation staff members was questioned. The research question was addressed in the context of the literature review. No studies were found that would have highlighted the indicated topic specifically. Simultaneously, both researchers and practitioners in the field provided notable background for the problem’s existence due to the lack of proper and constant monitoring of the mental health state of the pilots and fatigue as a multidimensional concern.

Keywords: Germanwings, mental illness among pilots, fatigue

Germanwings’ Crash and Mental Illness among Pilots

Introduction

Recent, unacceptable and barely understandable deaths of 150 people on board of the Airbus 320 of Germanwings has shocked the entire global community. On the one hand, the scale of the tragedy has dismayed the world. On the other hand, the fact that the airplane crashed due to an inadequate mental health condition of one of the pilots had raised sufficient concerns among the theorists and practitioners in the field. Moreover, the passengers who stereotypically doubt trustworthiness of the pilots have caused worries. The above statement emphasizes the topicality of the issue and the need for clarification of the problem of mental illness among pilots by the scholars and practitioners. The paper aims to argue that the pilots’ working lifestyle and schedule are determinants of their mental health, which can become a crucial factor causing severe consequences during the flights.

Literature Review

To begin, it is to be noted that no contemporary study has been found that would have researched the issue of mental illness among the pilots specifically. However, it is relevant to assume that the scholars will carefully consider this issue after the aforementioned event will have occurred. Simultaneously, the practitioners tend to agree that “even the most strenuous screening and training procedures cannot guarantee a mentally or emotionally troubled person does not step into the cockpit” (Davies, 2015). This conclusion can be drawn from several aspects of the airline industry. First, a manifestation of depression or any other mental illness can appear at any point in human life and may be absolutely immediate and unexpected. Whereas the pilots are obliged to conduct medical certification assessment once a year, it is practically impossible to identify such state. Moreover, the US and Canadian airlines alone are operated by approximately 50,000 pilots (Davies, 2015). Therefore, this factor is an additional barrier to the potential detection of mentally ill individuals among pilots. What is more, practitioners confess that there is no valid and well-developed tool for clear identification if mentally ill people in the field, since most attention during testing is majorly paid to the physical health domain (Davies, 2015; Willsher, 2015). It follows that these components of the initially flawed employee assessment system altogether make the airline industry a risky field for consumer experience.

By the same token, sufficient research has focused on the factors of mental and physical health that can result in flawed health and illnesses in the future if overlooked. For instance, the problem of fatigue and related issues has received substantial attention of both scholars and practitioners in the sphere. The quantitative research was conducted by the European Cockpit Association (ECA) (2012) in the context of the UK, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Austria and France and involved internationally operating pilots. The results of this study emphasized the significance and the scope of the problem. In particular, scholars have found that approximately four out of five pilots experience such symptoms of fatigue within the cockpit as involuntarily falling asleep with the highest percentage indicated by German (92%) and Dutch (93%) professionals (British Airline Pilots Association, 2011, p. 3). Apart from causing a detrimental effect on the overall physical and mental health of the pilot, this state poses a threat to the safety of the crew and passengers. In accordance with the findings, while the surveyed pilots admitted that they had imprudence to fall asleep and experience micro-sleep, they reported evidencing the same state in their colleagues after waking up. Moreover, 71% of Swedish, 79% of Norwegian, 80-90% of Dutch and 94% of German pilots informed that they had made mistakes in piloting an airplane when experiencing fatigue (British Airline Pilots Association, 2011). Finally, the possibility of reporting about own fatigue to the supervisors is negatively perceived by the pilots. Specifically, only 20-30% of the participants of the study found this procedure reasonable, while 70-80% emphasized that this approach could become a determinant of potential stigmatization in the workplace (British Airline Pilots Association, 2011). In this respect, fatigue is a complex health concern that is characterized by unfavorable emotional conditions within the pilot’s environment that is embodied in numerous aspects of flight, as analyzed earlier. Thus, the above evidence shows the large-scale impact of the problem in light of flight physiology in an explicit way.

A number of studies have explored the phenomenon of fatigue and related mental health factors in-depth. The primary health-based concerns among pilots were predominantly indicated as self-reported fatigue, sleep problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression (British Airline Pilots Association, 2011; van Drongelen, van der Beek, Hlobil, Smid, & Boot, 2013). In this respect, van Drongelen et al. (2013) have outlined several determinants of fatigue and ongoing worsening of mental health of the pilots. These factors include “irregular working hours and crossing of time zones” and reduction in quantity and quality of sleep as the most important ones (van Drongelen et al., 2013, p. 776). In addition, pilot’s fatigue is likely to reveal itself in circadian disruption and jet lag symptoms (van Drongelen et al., 2013; British Airline Pilots Association, 2011). What is more, the mental-to-physical state of an individual employed in the aviation industry is under constant pressure posed by high job requirements in the sector alongside with little control of working performance by the supervisors. AAs an illustration, the pilots surveyed in the study by the British Airline Pilots Association (2011) has reported extreme workloads that comprise of more than 425 hours for the past six months. All these constituents are likely to result in poor mental health and mental illness symptoms in pilots. For instance, van Drongelen et al. (2013) have emphasized such range of unfavorable conditions within the pilot’s working environment as “health problems, impaired performance during work, and decreased work-life balance” (p. 776). Drawing upon these proof, it is clear that mental health of any pilot is substantially challenged by the previously reviewed indicators. Of course, none of the studies considered in the scope of the paper allow to state that all pilots are potentially dangerous performers of flights. Nonetheless, the fact that their mental health is under the threat should not be underestimated.

At the same time, the study by Sykes, Larsen, Griffiths and Aldington (2012) has provided a rather contrasting evidence with regard to the set research question. In particular, the scholars have tested a hypothesis of whether the pilot’s health is better than that of an ordinary individual from the general population or not. The exploration involved 595 pilots from New Zealand, which was a sample of sufficient size in for valid generalizations on the researched topic, at least with regard to the target nation. As a result, the investigators clarified that there were certain concerns of a higher risk for the pilots as compared to the general population, including the proneness of the research sample to kidney disease as well as melanoma skin cancer (Sykes et al., 2012, p. 1001). On the contrary, in accordance with other aspects of physical and mental health of the pilots studied in New Zealand, they were found healthier than the ordinary residents of the region. In this respect, the findings proposed by this research make it relevant to assert that the belief that the pilots are potentially mentally inadequate and may pose a danger to the crew and the people on board is unjustified. Certainly, results of the previous studies conducted in the European area revealed contrary evidence, which emphasized rather critical health condition of the pilots, especially with respect to their mental health. However, this does not mean that any of the two opposing views can be found invalid. On the contrary, these dubious findings emphasize a necessity for further clarifications in the area in order to provide proof that would suffice the answer to the set research question explicitly and to the fullest.

Similarly, despite that the study by van Drongelen et al. (2013) was used as supporting evidence for the introduced argument, these scholars listed a few factors that can enhance the pilot’s overall health and reduce fatigue and any manifestations of initial mental health problems. To be more precise, possible intervention that can improve one’s health should involve “tailored advice regarding exposure to daylight, optimizing sleep, physical activity, and nutrition” (van Drongelen et al., 2013, p. 776). Undoubtedly, this approach cannot resolve the problem of mental health illness among pilots. Nonetheless, a proper preventive strategy and an intervention for the overall enhancement of pilots’ health is likely to mitigate the potential consequences of the current state of things, which have been highlighted by the scholars and practitioners.

Apart from that, there is a need to refer to the article by Barros (2013) who has examined the lifespan of Santos Dumont. He was a Brazilian aviator who contributed much to the invention of dirigibles and airplanes as well as to the enhancement of aircraft as a whole. Following the reasoning of the scholar, the aviator has “exhibited a series of epidemiological risk factors for suicide: male gender, severe depression, advanced age, a comorbid neurologic condition (possibly), feelings of despair and guilt, social isolation, absence of a marital bond, and absence of effective treatment” (Barros, 2013, p. 208). This acute change in Dumont’s behavior was caused by the fact that his inventions were used in wartime and many innocent people died because of them. On a similar note, the symptoms seem to be similar to the ones ascribed to Andreas Lubitz who was found guilty of the crash of the Airbus 320. Furthermore, Willsher (2015) has emphasized that “he had suffered from severe depression in the past and a computer found at his home showed he had used the internet to research suicide methods in the days leading up to the crash”. Of course, this comparison does not presume any emphasis of the fact that people with certain mental health concerns should actively participate in the analyzed field. Moreover, no intention is attached to this article with relation to leaving the things the way they are at the moment. On the contrary, reference to these two resources underlines a necessity to clearly identify the issue of mental illness among pilots and study these factors accurately. Sufficient proof has to be collected to ensure that flights are organized as evidence-based practice and all possible hazards are eliminated.

Conclusion

Drawing upon the findings of the literature review, it is necessary to state that the introduced research question is extremely important for consideration. Nevertheless, the evidence obtained in the context of the paper does not provide ample and one-sided answer to the set research question. Namely, it is not reasonable to assert that all pilots pose a potential danger to other members of the crew and passengers. However, the problem of the pressing working atmosphere undoubtedly exists and causes a serious concern for their mental health conditions as well as the safety of the individuals on board.

From the perspective of the scholars and practitioners who clearly emphasized the above fact, the severity of the negative potential embodied in a range of unfavorable factors considered in the paper should not be underestimated. Indeed, permanent exhaustion, constant change of the time zones among other aspects heavily impact the productivity and health of the pilots. Moreover, these issues make their life-to-work correlation substantially imbalanced. The fact that the aviation practice can neither prevent nor cope with these issues due to the lack of awareness, assessment, intervention strategies and even ignorance of this concern poses a threat to the whole society. At the same time, the study by Sykes et al. (2012) has showed a reverse side of the problem indicating that pilots are found healthier than the general population. This study did not contradict the previous findings. Nonetheless, it once again allowed to emphasize that more in-depth and holistic exploration is needed to address the raised concerns and issues.

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