Germanwings crash highlights mental health evaluations

The Germanwings Flight 9525 at the hands of copilot Andreas Lubitz has called into question whether the mental health of pilots is assessed well enough.

The Federal Aviation Administration dictates that to keep an updated flight certificate and be able to fly, pilots are required to undergo an annual physical examination with an FAA-approved physician – but the only mental health aspect of it is a few questions on a medical form.

“It is incumbent upon the pilot to answer those honestly, it is self-reporting – now does that happen all the time?” says Greg Feith, a former senior safety investigator. “A lot of that may not get reported, like a psychosis or a depression or things like that, because if you’re flying professionally, your whole career hinges on that answer.”

Feith says depending on the severity of the issue reported on that form,

“Had this flight landed successfully, would we have ever known this guy had these thoughts in his head? Probably not.”

“It doesn’t seem like it would be that difficult for people to fall through the cracks,” says Bonnie Loughran, executive director for NAMI Dane County, a mental health advocacy organization.

The fear for Loughran is the stigma often attached to mental illness.

“People don’t want to be associated with mental illness because they could lose their job,” Loughran says.

Feith says this crash could spur the kind industry-wide change that has been talked about but never acted upon.

“Absolutely there’s going to be discussion with regard to how we evaluate pilots,” he says.

Feith added there will be challenges to that change – including issues of pilot privacy and ongoing concerns of disclosure.

“There’s just really no way a doctor can know everything that’s going on in my life, if I had a dizzy spell – unless I disclose it, they won’t know,” Feith says.

“[Changes] have to be logical, they have to be responsible, but they have to be practical – and I think that if we get too carried away, we may just create more problems.”

Both Feith and Loughran stressed the importance of having friends and family to step in when someone acts out of the norm.