The Germanwings tragedy placed the issues of pilot mental health and the possible substance abuse that could be accompanying mental health problems in the spotlight. While such abuses are exceedingly rare, the aviation community felt the need to take a closer look at how we could – as a safety critical industry – deal with mental issues and potential substance abuse better. The answer is: Peer Support Programmes (PSPs).
Those programmes allow pilots and other safety critical staff to seek advice and help with a specific problem by self-reporting their concerns to (specially trained) colleagues – their peers. Alternatively, peers might encourage a colleague to seek assistance within such a support program. With this core message, the aviation community gathered in Cologne for a two-day conference on the EASA Germanwings Action Plan follow-up. The Conference gathered stakeholders to discuss in detail the concrete regulatory proposals the Agency will be issuing in the second half of 2016. It is expected that Peer Support Programmes may become mandatory in Europe and will be supported by EASA in the future. ECA together with Aeromedical Examiners and Aviation Psychologists, announced the launch of the European Peer Support Initiative (EPSI) in the near future in order to foster support program best practices throughout the industry.
Peer Support Programs have been identified as an adequate, effective and cost efficient means to further improve safety. Training hiccups, childcare, depression, anxiety - pilots are people with their everyday problems and difficulties. Having a reliable community and encouragement from peer pilots to seek assistance is a first step for finding solutions and support. ECA Expert Antti Tuori summarises the benefits of PSPs: “If we want to avoid people with problems to be driven ‘underground’, but come forward to seek help, we need to offer a “safe zone” where they can be open without fear of either retribution or jeopardizing their livelihood”. Such programmes also allow the pilots to be guided towards help, i.e. counselling and, if needed, treatment& rehabilitation. Existing programmes worldwide such as HIMS or several so-called “anti-skid”-programs have been successful in helping pilots overcome issues such as substance-abuse and dependency and put them back into the cockpit. PSPs can also be an effective tool to identify more serious depression or drug and alcohol abuse.
In contrast, random drug and alcohol testing, has a very low detection rate (especially in flight crew), high costs and brings along a number of operational problems according to Dr. Ries Simons, one of the experts tasked by EASA to look into the issue. Even worse, random testing may lead to hiding mental problems, including problematic substance use, and this might lead to the progression of disorders to more severe stages. Experts are convinced that ‘problematic’ use will be missed by random testing, but will be captured much better by flight crew support programmes.
In addition, significant ‘false positive’ rates caused by use of prescription and over-the-counter medication, food (e.g. poppy seed!), environmental contamination and limitations of testing methodology, make random drug and alcohol testing not the preferred industry choice. Contrary, it would diminish the trust in any voluntary PSPs and initiatives for self-reporting. And these are key to diminishing existing risks and improving safety!