Prozac Pilots take to the Happy Skies

Flying in the US just got a whole lot easier…at least for pilots!

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has lifted a 70 year old rule that banned pilots from taking antidepressants because of the risks of sedation. The ban had endured because earlier generations of antidepressants caused side effects, such as drowsiness and seizures.  However, a panel of medical experts for the FAA found during two years of research that newer versions don’t cause side effects in everyone. When they do occur, they tend to subside over time.

This policy turnaround means that pilots taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), including fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft) citalopram (Celexa) and escitalopram (Lexapro) or their generic equivalents and who show success controlling their depression for 12 months, without side effects that could pose a safety hazard in the cockpit, will be able to seek permission to fly.

This rule change may benefit up to 10,000 grounded pilots.  It also includes a degree of amnesty for pilots who have lied about their diagnosis and treatment on medical certification forms. Previously, airline and other pilots who suspected they were depressed but wanted or financially needed to fly faced a choice: seek no medication for treatment, because doing so would disqualify them, or self-medicate and lie about it on a required medical certification form.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about 9.5 percent of people 18 and older suffer from a mood disorder. A 2009 study by Columbia University showed that as many as 10% of Americans were taking antidepressants. FAA officials assume the percentage is about the same among pilots but has no hard numbers because the ban gave pilots a disincentive to report depression or treatment.

”We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression,” said an FAA official. ”Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties.”

SRxA’s Word on Health wonders if this will mean fewer delayed flights or more happy flight crews. What do you think?