The Depressed Pilot

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 50 seconds.

You’re a passenger on an airliner. You sit down, and look around you. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by people responsible for your life. You want to know that you can trust them, that they are all there, present. You expect their training to be top-notch, and that they care. What happens if any of these people have a mental disorder? The flight attendant could be struggling with mental illness. Maybe it’s the guy sitting next to you. Perhaps the first officer, or even the captain.

Your concerns are valid. Safety is the pillar of the aviation industry. Many work very hard to keep it standing strong for all lives involved in the industry, whether as a customer or an employee. Your pilots especially want you to make it from point A to point B with zero discomfort or doubts that it will happen.

Ground zero is this. A significant amount of people don’t like the idea of depression, and they don’t trust people with this disorder to safely fly an aircraft. A study conducted on my stomping grounds, in the province of Alberta in Canada, conducted a survey of 3047 adults. The study found that 45% of people considered people with depression to be unpredictable. 20% considered them dangerous [1]. It’s pretty clear: the public does not view depression favorably.

We know from the research that depression is everywhere. Research has shown us unequivocally that the levels in critical professions such as in medicine and the military will reflect the numbers found in the general population. In my online studies, I have found that airline pilots are no more different in this regard. Research done by Alexander C. Wu et al. found that 13.5% of the 1430 airline pilots they surveyed met the criteria for depression. Even more saddening and shocking, 4.1% reported having recent suicidal thoughts [2]. Somewhere, we are dropping the ball miserably, and this affects most of all the public, whose safety we have to have in mind.

This brings me to what I’d like to highlight next. What happens to pilots who admit to their aviation doctors that they are struggling with depression? I can give you an accurate snapshot of the process.

First, bye-bye medical. You cannot fly in Canada if you currently have depression. Your depressive symptoms must be alleviated, the method of which you achieve that is up to you and your doctor. Then the process from here on out requires patience, savings in the bank, filling out forms, meeting up with the family doctor a few times, as well as appointments with psychologists. To deny that it is intimidating does all a great disservice.

Throughout this, you have no actual guarantee that you will be cleared to fly again. If you are given the privilege of getting your license back, now have to deal with the stigma of being pilot on medication. A person with a mental illness. It is suddenly clear why Transport Canada has found that the number of pilots being treated for depression does not at all reflect the stats on the number of pilots flying with it, untreated. There is an incredible amount of people out there scared to seek help. And they are deep in an industry that is stressful, that wrecks havoc on your circadian rhythm, and requires top performance at all times.

Is the answer to erect more barriers to people in the industry from flying if they have depression? Transport Canada has discussed this very issue, acknowledging that the barriers already put in place for depressed aviators has done very little but push those with the illness to resort to self-medication, some even purchasing their drugs online to avoid detection from regulatory bodies. So just by simply following the stats and literature on the topic, the answer does not seem to be, “lets make it harder or impossible for those with depression to fly,” but rather, “we know people are hiding it. Let’s help them, and make the skies a better place for everyone to be.”

Lucky for us all, stigma and discrimination does not equal reality.

Addressing people’s concerns about what perceived risks they are taking by getting on an airplane is important too. As we learned above, a good part of the public considers those with depression to be unpredictable and dangerous. These two traits in particular are those that you would obviously NOT want in the guy operating your next flight.

Lucky for us all, stigma and discrimination does not equal reality. No data exists to support the conclusion that people with depression are more likely than the next guy to commit a violent act involving others. In fact, only a very few specific mental disorders are associated with any kind of risk of violence, depression NOT being on that list [3]. The media’s portrayal of those with mental illness, especially depression given how relatively common it is, is far from reality and is even further from fair. These negative portrayals that we see and hear from our colleagues, friends, and from the news only serve to create a incredibly unfounded bias against those recovering from depression. And it’s one that doesn’t even need to exist!


MY FINAL THOUGHTS. Pilots with depression should not fly.

THE PILOTS WITH TREATED, IN REMISSION DEPRESSION SHOULD BE THE ONES HAPPILY FLYING.

I’m pleased that my thinking on this is in harmony with Transport Canada’s stance on aviators and depression. Unavoidable bureaucracy aside, it IS possible in Canada to fly on SSRIs. Just takes a little bit of time, patience, and the magic of honesty.

Unfortunately, to take that step feels impossible for many. I know I’ve been told (under complete confidence) by a few fellow aviators that they feel trapped, like as though they have no choice but to suffer in silence. These poor souls are refusing to take any steps that they may need to take to address their mental health, in fear of the many perceived consequences.

The change begins with changing public perception. A little bit of elbow grease and we can get there. It starts with people such as yourself, dear reader. Sharing and speaking openly about depression, de-stigmatizing it, and getting it into people’s heads that a pilot with treated depression is absolutely as safe as the next guy are awesome ways to start remodeling how we think of the condition. The world is going to be a better place for it!

Part two of how change happens begins with the pilots themselves. Friends, don’t fly with an illness. Just don’t do it to yourself. I have depression, and it was a monster. I KILLED IT THOUGH. It’s POSSIBLE. Reach out to a therapist (therapy is just as effective as medication!), or your family doctor, and tell them if you are struggling. It’s bloody terrifying to do that, to be candid and open and honest, but man did it feel right.

I’m well on my way to getting my medical all cleared up, and soon I will be joining my friends in the sky once again. You can do it too! Absolutely!


Sources and some short quotes for context (bolding mine):

[1] Data were collected in a probability sampled population-based survey of 3047 adults in Alberta, Canada… Over 45% of participants considered that people with depression were unpredictable. Over 20% reported that people with depression were dangerous. However, the percentages did not differ by levels of depression literacy and whether having a family/friend with depression.

[1] Wang, J., & Lai, D. (2008). The relationship between mental health literacy, personal contacts and personal stigma against depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 110(1-2), 191-196. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2008.01.005

[2] …193 (13.5%) of 1430 pilots who reported working as an airline pilot in the last seven days at time of survey, met depression threshold–PHQ-9 total score ≥ 10. Seventy-five participants (4.1%) reported having suicidal thoughts within the past two weeks. We found a significant trend in proportions of depression at higher levels of use of sleep-aid medication (trend test z = 6.74, p < 0.001) and among those experiencing sexual harassment (z = 3.18, p = 0.001) or verbal harassment (z = 6.13, p < 0.001).

[2] Wu, A.C., Donnelly-McLay, D., Weisskopf, M.G. et al. Airplane pilot mental health and suicidal thoughts: a cross-sectional descriptive study via anonymous web-based survey. Environ Health 15, 121 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-016-0200-6

[3] Mental illness can explain only a very small fraction of general violence… Only a few specific mental disorders can be associated with violence, most commonly first-episode psychosis, and schizophrenia with positive symptoms such as hallucinations and command delusions. The most common diagnosis in the USA, depression, is not associated with violence except in the rare cases in which psychosis is presented.

[3] Ahonen L. (2019) The Association Between Mental Illness and Violence. In: Violence and Mental Illness. SpringerBriefs in Criminology. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-18750-7_4

The World’s Worst Flying Job Interview

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

I once interviewed for a company where the interviewer’s goal seemed to be to bang off every single illegal job interview question in one sitting. Have a gander at this list.

“How old are you?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you guys have kids? Are you going to?”

“Are you from Canada?”

The questions themselves seem harmless enough, almost as though someone is taking a personal, neighborly interest in you. However, it’d be incredibly naive to take them as anything other than a blatant attempt at discrimination. It was one of those moments where you’re answering the questions without hesitation because you’re young, dumb, and desperate for a job. Those questions, those grabs at finding a reason to deny my application should have been taken as a major red flag for what was to come, but again, young and dumb.

Female applicants were more likely to report being asked about their desire to have a family than male applicants (32% vs. 3%, respectively, p = 0.041)… gender discrimination in the residency interview has not been eradicated… Community and academic programs appear to ask similar numbers and types of potentially illegal questions.

Hessel, Kara, et al. “Have We Come as Far as We Had Hoped? Discrimination in the Residency Interview.” Journal of Surgical Education, vol. 74, no. 6, 2017, pp. 939–945., doi:10.1016/j.jsurg.2017.04.003.

We know that women are far more likely to be asked illegal questions in job interviews than men. And in my case, asked outright, with no sugar-coating or hiding behind flowery words. And the person interviewing me was a woman as well (!), which gave it even more of a what the hell factor.

I’m saving the best for last though. That by far was not the worst question I was asked.

It started off innocent enough. “Do you have any siblings?” I’m sort of 50/50 on whether I answer this in a grey zone, or if I’m completely honest. Sometimes you just don’t want to get into having lost your only sibling with a total stranger. On this day though, I chose to be candid.

I explained to the interviewer that yes, I have a brother, but unfortunately had lost him in an aviation related accident.

She stared at me, and without skipping a beat or expressing an ounce of sympathy said, “Well, will this affect how you work? Will that happen to you?”

Just, what. The. Heck.

How can someone, a stranger no less, without knowing any information or details surrounding my little brother’s accident, ask me if I was going to have an accident too?

I don’t at all like to paint people, even seemingly insensitive people, with the same color brush. Labeling others on the first meeting can be a BIG detriment to yourself, as it closes you off from expanding your mindset and being open to having it challenged. But you do have to wonder, what life experiences has this woman had to make her so uncaring? What happened to make her a person who so blatantly disregards the same laws that this country has put into place to protect women such as herself?

I suppose we’ll never really know the answer. My lesson was learned: cheer on and support the companies that avoid dabbling in the wrong side of the law, and who conduct far more professional interviews. Be an advocate for women and men in the industry, teaching them what they do and do not have to tolerate in order to get, or keep, a job.

Those companies and chief pilots are out there – and man are they awesome! God bless ’em.

As always, big THANK YOU to those reading! Slap me with a comment down below, I absolutely adore reading through them.

xx, Shavs

5 Ways You’re an Unsafe Pilot and Don’t Even Know It

In your flying career, you 100% have run into pilots where the encounter left you scratching your head and thinking, “how the heck did that guy even earn his license?” You have likely expressed the same sentiment while driving too, maybe even on the way to the airport. “Holy crap! They shouldn’t be allowed to drive!”

But that’s just it. Is it ALL just other pilots, or do you yourself deserve your license? See where you stack against this list, and if you cannot improve upon the areas you are falling short.

ONTO THE GOOD STUFF.


  1. You don’t read your aircraft’s manual or study SOPs.

If you are the type that only cracks open a manual before a flight test, this one is especially for you.

In my career, I only have ever met a handful of pilots who have gone above and beyond to keep sharp on SOPs, emergency procedures, and aircraft systems. The rest of us all seem to fall somewhere in between ‘dang, I forget it already’ and ‘practically a training captain’ . You know who’s usually a better pilot? Hint, it’s not the forgetful guys.

Letting this knowledge slip away can cause us to pay a high, and avoidable, price. A good rule of thumb is that anything you need to know for a check ride should be committed to memory.

Forgetting the zero fuel weight of the plane, no problem! Happens to all of us. It’s when you go home and don’t bother going over the important aircraft weights that you forgot earlier that it becomes a problem.

Big problem-o, easy fix.

  1. You aren’t reporting safety issues to a safety management system (SMS).

All companies have some form of system, usually online, to report safety concerns. This system has to be non-punitive for it to be worth your time. So if your company does not work this way, just skip over this section and quit your job.

Otherwise, use the heck out of that system. It’s a way to protect yourself in case you make a mistake while on duty. It helps your company provide better support and training, and helps all of the pilots learn from each other’s mistakes. There are zero negatives here! I like how it keeps you accountable, and encourages examining your own actions for things that could have been done differently.

  1. You have an attitude problem.

This one is tough to judge for yourself. There are TWO invaluable metrics that I use for myself when I do my own little internal audit.

The first: when I am at work, are my emotions primarily negative, or are they positive? If I am experiencing more negative emotions than positive, and seem to have an external source to blame for all of them (perhaps a co-worker), then I know I am veering off to attitude problem territory and that the brakes need to be pumped NOW.

The second has to do with your conversations with others. Imagine you have a balancing scale, with one side being “conversation about self,” and the other, “conversation about others”. Which side is heavier for you? Are you spending most of your day dominating conversations with talk of yourself, or are you actively listening and showing interest in what others have to say?

If the side of the scale with “ME ME ME” is touching the table, you probably are lugging around a bad attitude too.

Bad attitudes lead to nothing but problems in the cockpit. They can manifest as someone having issues taking direction, not speaking up if there is a problem, or aggressively dominating the rest of the crew. It’s better to root out these issues so you’re left a more balanced and wiser pilot.

  1. You don’t try to understand the big weather picture before a flight.

There is nothing more silly dangerous than causally checking the METAR/TAF, and then hopping into an airplane. The TAF is a solid source of forecast information for a narrow area around the airport, but that’s all. If you’re not looking at the GFA too, you’re missing out on the bigger picture. The GFA can help you predict what altitude is going to avoid some nasty enroute icing, or being rocked unnecessarily by turbulence. It can show you what weather systems are coming your way far before the TAF can.

Only takes a few more clicks on Nav Canada’s Forecast and Observations website, and you’ll have a whole slew of data at your disposal, including the GFA. That extra few minutes incorporating it into your weather briefing before flight is invaluable.

  1. You are neglecting exercise!

At this point, it has entered into common knowledge that exercise is just as good for your brain as it is for your long-time health. But when we say, “good” for the brain, what does that mean EXACTLY?

A fun study on the connection between exercise and brain activity answers just that. Even more compelling, the study compares the impact of low-intensity versus high-intensity exercise.

The behavioral data showed a significant increase in positive mood after both exercise intensities… The results of the Rs-fMRI tests showed that low-intensity exercise led to increased functional connectivity in networks associated with cognitive processing and attention. (Schmitt, Angelika et al. ‘Modulation of Distinct Intrinsic Resting State Brain Networks by Acute Exercise Bouts of Differing Intensity’. 1 Jan. 2019 : 39 – 55.)

Emphasis in the quoted section above is mine. These findings are especially relevant for pilots, as we could use all the positive mood, cognitive processing, and attention boosts we can get. Getting active can be as simple and cheap as going for a walk. To miss out on this is to miss out on a sweet mental edge you could bring to your job.


And there you have it! I definitely hope this helps you guys up your flying game, and position yourself for growth in this crazy industry. Let me know what you think of this list in the comments below, I’d love to hear it!

😘, Shavs