One in eight commercial airline pilots may be clinically depressed, global survey finds

Hundreds of pilots may suffer from depression, Harvard study reveals, and many may not be seeking treatment for fear of impact on their careers, researcher says. Plus: can playing Pokemon Go help you lose weight?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 December, 2016, 9:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 2:58pm

Hundreds of commercial airline pilots currently flying may be clinically depressed, according to an anonymous survey of nearly 1,850 pilots from over 50 countries conducted by researchers at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

About one in eight respondents met the criteria for “likely depression”, say the researchers in their report published online in the journal Environmental Health.

“We found that many pilots currently flying are managing depressive symptoms, and it may be that they are not seeking treatment due to the fear of negative career impacts,” says Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science and senior author of the study. “There is a veil of secrecy around mental health issues in the cockpit. By using an anonymous survey, we were able to guard against people’s fears of reporting due to stigma and job discrimination.”

The findings come a year and a half after Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who suffered from depression, deliberately crashed a plane into the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.

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The web-based survey comprised standardised questions about job content and health drawn from established surveys and included questions about mental health that doctors use to diagnose depression.

The highest percentage of respondents initiated surveys from the US (46 per cent), Canada (13 per cent), and Australia (11 per cent). Of the 1,848 respondents who completed the questions about mental health, 233 (13 per cent) met the criteria for likely depression, and 75 (4 per cent) reported having suicidal thoughts within the previous two weeks. Of 1,430 who reported working as an airline pilot in the last seven days at the time of the survey, 193 (14 per cent) met the criteria for depression.

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A greater proportion of male pilots than female pilots reported that they had experiences “nearly every day” of loss of interest, feeling like a failure, trouble concentrating, and thinking they would be better off dead. Woman pilots were more likely than male pilots to have at least one day of poor mental health during the previous month, and were more likely to have been diagnosed with depression.

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The study also found that depression was more likely among pilots who used higher levels of sleep aid medication and those who were experiencing sexual or verbal harassment.

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“Our study hints at the prevalence of depression among pilots – a group of professionals that is responsible for thousands of lives every day – and underscores the importance of accurately assessing pilots’ mental health and increasing support for preventative treatment,” says Alex Wu, a doctoral student at Harvard T.H. Chan School and first author on the paper.

Pokemon Go moderately improves physical activity among adults

Pokemon Go improves physical activity among adults who use the augmented reality game, but the effect is moderate and not sustained over time, finds a study published in The British Medical Journal Christmas issue.

Harvard researchers found that the daily average steps during the first week of installation of the smartphone game increased by 955 additional steps, but the following weeks saw a gradual reduction in the number of steps, and this effect was lost after six weeks of game playing.

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The researchers conducted an online survey of 1,182 participants, aged 18-35, during August 2016. In total, 560 (47 per cent) of the participants reported playing Pokemon Go at “trainer level” of 5 or more, which is reached after walking for around two hours.

Data was analysed from automatically recorded step counts from the participants’ phones and used to estimate the change in daily steps after installation of the game.

The study’s senior author Eric Rimm says: “What we found were exciting new findings that over a six-week period you can do a lot to increase physical activity, we just have to be more creative about finding ways to get people to keep exercising.”

What else comes with a college degree? An extra 4.5kg, says study

University students gain an average of 4.5kg over their college years, along with the associated health risks, according to a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour.

The study measured student weight and body mass index at the beginning and end of students’ first and second semesters and again at the end of their final year. At the beginning of their college careers, the mean weight of the 110 students in the study was about 67kg. By the end of senior year, it had increased to about 71kg. Twenty-three per cent of the students were overweight or obese as they were starting college. By the end of senior year, 41 per cent were in that category.

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Obese young adults are at risk for a variety of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, polycystic ovarian syndrome and psycho-social distress, says the study’s lead author, Lizzy Pope, assistant professor in the nutrition and food sciences department at the University of Vermont in the USs.