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David Baxter

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Pilots safer on anti-depressants
November 30, 2007
The Age

Depressed pilots who take medication are no more likely to crash or make errors than others in the cockpit, but too few may be taking the drugs, an Australian study suggests.

Australia stands alone as the only nation that allows pilots medicated with anti-depressants to fly planes, but it is still a common assumption that their use may compromise aviation safety.

A new study to be presented at an international mental health conference in Melbourne has put this to the test by comparing accident rates of medicated and non-medicated pilots and found no statistical difference in their safety record.

"There was virtually no difference in the number of incidents or accidents," said Professor Kathy Griffiths, a mental health researcher from Australian National University.

"But importantly, there was a tendency for more accidents in the period prior to pilots going on to anti-depressants, but not once they were on them."

The study used Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) records between 1993 and 2004, and compared the 481 pilots who reported medication use with the same number of pilots who did not take medication.

Each group had a total of five accidents, defined as serious injury, death or major aircraft damage during the period.

The medicated pilots had 18 incidents of pilot error reported to CASA, while the other group had 15, an insignificant difference.

"This really confirms for the first time that the longstanding liberal policy of supervised anti-depressant use introduced by CASA to allow medicated pilots is a good one," said Professor James Ross, a co-investigator and former aviation medical specialist with CASA.

"But it does raise a lot of questions about what is happening in all these other countries, where presumably people secretly take medication unsupervised, or they just fly depressed, increasing their chance of incident."

Prof Ross said Australia still had progress to make as only one per cent of the 60,000 pilots were on the medication compared with 4.5 per cent of the general population.

"The aviation industry is a conservative one and there's still plenty of stigma around about depression and drugs," he said.

"It looks like some are still being deterred to come forward despite the policy and that's really not good."

The recently-published research will be presented to the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) conference.
 

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