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  • OPINION: Aviation must address a Catch-22 for mentally ill pilots

OPINION: Aviation must address a Catch-22 for mentally ill pilots

In the novel that coined the term, Catch-22 described a paradox in which a doctor could not stop a mentally-unstable combat pilot from flying because a grounding request by the pilot would prove that his mind was entirely sound.

There is an element of Joseph Heller’s absurdity in the real world of commercial aviation, whereby pilots are expected to be sufficiently mentally robust to self-declare a serious mental illness, and to take such a step even if it runs contrary to their personal and financial interests.

Much has been written about the first officer of Germanwings 9525, plenty of it unpleasant and unforgiving, laced with cod-psychology of the worst kind. His final act was indisputably monstrous, but to boo and hiss the pilot as if his character had no more depth than a pantomime villain is to reveal an astonishing, albeit unsurprising, naivety and ignorance about the complexity of mental illness, and its accompanying distortion of rationality and reason.

Mental illness remains a closet subject, with depression a particular taboo among the male population, where the false perception that it equates to weak-mindedness means it goes unrecognised, unacknowledged, and misinterpreted – masquerading as aggression, risk-taking, workaholism – even by those tormented by its dark and seemingly endless despair. That colleagues and acquaintances can remain oblivious is hardly surprising. That the suicide rate among men is four times that among women is a grotesque inevitability.

Concentration on the shocking denouement serves to misdirect from a crucial aspect of the Germanwings story: the inquiry only knew the pilot’s medical history in any detail because he had sought the help of doctors – a notable step, given the tendency of men to shy. Even the investigators referenced his “high motivation and active participation” that contributed to his initial recovery.

Hand-wringing over the missed opportunities to prevent the outcome detracts from a far more troubling concern, namely the invisible individuals suffering in isolation and silence, their outward appearance to colleagues at odds with their inner fragility.

Medical confidentiality becomes irrelevant if stigma, shame and fear lead to concealment and deception. There’s no shortage of incentives to keep mental illness hidden. An athlete with a broken leg is still an athlete. A person with a fractured mind becomes a ‘lunatic’, ‘psycho’, ‘nutcase’.

All of which underscores the need for awareness and openness and far greater understanding of this miserable condition by those closest to the afflicted. Not least because the unpredictable nature and terrifying prevalence of severe depression means there’s more than an outside chance they’ll find themselves, one day, staring into a chasm of hopelessness and weighing judgements cast from the privileged pulpit of an intact psyche.

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