Returning to Flight After Depression
By Paul Engstrom, Aviation Writer and IFA Member
Perhaps the only thing more depressing than
depression itself is the notion'mistaken, in most cases'that this mental
condition will put a permanent end to your flying days.
In fact, among ailments that rate as pilots' worst
enemies, depression possibly ranks close to the bottom. Why?
First, aside from being one of the most common
mental disorders (it afflicts up to 20 million Americans), depression is
highly treatable. Effective new medications and other therapies mean
treatment is successful 80-90 percent of the time, according to Dr.
Glenn R. Stoutt Jr., a senior aviation medical examiner in Louisville,
Second, depression often is situational'that is,
sparked by such factors as job, marital, or financial problems, stress,
or a death in the family. That's important to know because treating
situational depression is typically easier than trying to quell
endogenous depression, a more severe form that may be chemical and/or
genetic in nature, though it, too, is treatable.
Finally, as Stoutt notes, the Federal Aviation
Administration 'is willing to return virtually all clinically depressed
pilots back to flying after successful treatment.'
In a nutshell, the FAA believes that this insidious
malady and all the prescription drugs for combating it'including
familiar brands like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft'are too risky for pilots
and, therefore, medically disqualifying. (As with other ailments, it's
your responsibility to report the disqualifying condition and not fly
until good health returns).
Aside from altering mood, antidepressants have side
effects ranging from blurred vision, anxiety, and nausea to dry mouth,
headache, and abdominal pain.
Yet, experts say, chances generally are pretty good
that you will qualify for medical certification if you've been off
antidepressants for at least 90 days and your personal physician reports
in writing to the FAA, through the aviation medical examiner (AME), that
treatment has been successful.
However, to return to the cockpit sooner rather
than later, it's important to avoid missteps that can cause
certification snags or delays:
Putting off treatment for depression might make the
problem worse, necessitating longer-term therapy.
Waiting until after the medical exam to find out
how the FAA will likely view your condition and the drugs you've been
taking for it is definitely the wrong approach. To learn more before the
exam so you can plan the best certification strategy, contact an AME,
experts at one of several pilot organizations that offer free medical
advice to members, or the FAA's Aerospace Medical Certification Division
in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, (405) 954-4821.
Don't show up at the exam without all of the
documents'such as a doctor's letter affirming your return to good mental
health'that will boost your odds of certification. Otherwise, expect
delays. Written words of gold from your personal physician: 'The
depression was treated and resolved.'
What you report to the FAA and how you report it
can greatly affect the agency's thumbs up/down decision. Providing too
much information can be as potentially damaging as providing too little.
When he isn't flying, Paul Engstrom writes and
edits from Sebastopol, Calif.
The information contained herein is meant for
informational purposes only. Neither IFA, nor Paul Engstrom assume any
responsibility or liability for events that occur due to actions you or
others on your behalf take based on the information given in this
article. You are proceeding at your own risk. It is strongly advised
that you seek the opinion and advice of a qualified aviation medical
examiner and appropriate medical physician for any medical needs you may