World Health Day 2017: The priority placed on supporting mental health in aviation

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On 24 March 2015, the pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525 deliberately steered the aircraft into a mountain side in the French Alps. This tragedy raised many questions, generated numerous discussions worldwide, and drew a very bright spotlight onto the importance of managing mental health in aviation.

Seventh April is celebrated each year as World Health Day, commemorating the anniversary of the foundation of the World Health Organization (WHO) and serving as an opportunity to raise worldwide awareness on significant global health concerns. In 2017, World Health Day is seeking to draw global attention to the challenges of depression, a common illness affecting an estimated 350 million people people worldwide.

ICAO’s role

As a United Nations agency, ICAO sets out standards and recommended practices for global civil aviation, with strategic priorities focused today on aviation safety, security and facilitation, capacity and efficiency, and air transport economic and environmental performance.

We also work with the agencies such as the WHO to raise awareness and implement strategies to better prevent and treat mental health conditions in aviation personnel, while also helping to reduce in general the stigma associated with mental health conditions. Related considerations include how this stigma or a specific mental health condition can affect a pilot’s career, ranging from temporary grounding to the loss of licences and incomes.

To this effect, ICAO has provided guidance to aviation authorities regarding the evaluation and certification of pilots with certain types of mental health conditions, provided that specified requirements are met and that medical certification is not considered to pose a safety risk to aviation operations.

The Germanwings accident also underlined the importance of the delicate balance between patient confidentiality, the right to earn a living, and public safety, all of which serve as very complex and interrelated concerns for medical and civil aviation authorities.

Achieving the objective

Last October, European Member States presented two working papers during the 39th Session of the ICAO Assembly on “Aviation medicine, Psychiatric and Psychological aspects” and “European initiatives following the Germanwings Flight 9525 Accident”. The ICAO Secretariat was requested to review the current flight crew mental health framework and to adopt, where relevant, adequate risk mitigation measures, including the development of new requirements, or the revision of existing ones. These documents can be accessed here and here.

ICAO has adopted a multidisciplinary approach in order to address this complicated issue through collaboration with mental health specialists, the WHO, international organizations, Member States and the industry. This work includes includes raising awareness, emphasizing the importance of aviation stakeholder education, and the implementation of pilot and aviation medical examiner support programmes.

A review of the flight crew mental health framework will be conducted by the ICAO Medical Provisions Study Group (MPSG), which consists of medical professionals, industry groups and State representatives.  Its efforts will cover multiple areas, including an analysis of accidents and incidents that could be linked to mental health conditions, evaluating the feasibility and practical application of psychological and psychiatric assessments, and eventually the appropriate updating of ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices and the associated guidance material.

By raising awareness, learning from experiences and implementing appropriate countermeasures, ICAO assists the WHO and its Member States in their efforts to recognize, prevent, detect and treat mental health conditions, reduce the associated stigma, and sustain international civil aviation operations in a safe, secure and efficient manner.

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