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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, Kentucky.

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 have.