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Airlines and Mental Health: Issues to Think About

Arlington, VA., March 29, 2012—The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) today released the following statement concerning the recent incidents aboard American Airlines and JetBlue flights:

On March 27 this week, a JetBlue airline pilot experienced a medical emergency in flight. On March 10, an American Airlines flight attendant also experienced a medical crisis while aboard an aircraft. In the latter case, the crisis apparently involved what she indicated was a pre-existing diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The incidents have raised concerns about public safety and mental health issues in aviation and other workplace settings.

To-date, there is no information confirming that mental illness was involved in the JetBlue incident. There are many potential causes of sudden changes in behavior, ranging from diabetes to medication side effects to extreme sleep deprivation. Because of this, a thorough assessment is essential for anyone experiencing a rapid change in behavior.

Nonetheless, there are broad points and principles that are relevant for discussion by the public.

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) permits health questionnaires and medical examinations when necessary to qualify for specific positions—provided that they occur after an offer of employment is made and are applied to all persons hired or employed in positions of f that kind.
  • The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) withholds first-class medical certificates for pilots who take certain medications. Since 2010, the FAA has had an exception for pilots who take an anti-depressant medication for mild to moderate depression. Out of 120,000 commercial pilots, about 30 have utilized the exception. The exception does not apply to other medical conditions such as anxiety disorders.
  • Medical conditions which may affect public safety are not limited to mental illness but may include a broad range of other medical disorders, including heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, impaired vision and others. Medical concerns are also not limited to the airline industry; they also involve other forms of transportation and other professions such as police, doctors, lawyers and others.
  • It is essential that policies governing medical and mental health concerns in certain professions not create disincentives for individuals to seek medical help when needed for fear that their livelihoods might be threatened.
  • Greater awareness of mental health issues and training in appropriate and effective responses to crisis situations should be part of every industry and workplace.

About NAMI

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI advocates for access to services, treatment, supports and research and is steadfast in its commitment to raising awareness and building a community of hope for all of those in need.

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SOURCE National Alliance on Mental Illness

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