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Pilots and other aviation professionals work in one of the most scrutinized and regulated industries in the United States. Whether at the controls of a commercial airliner, tending to the passenger needs, or ensuring public safety, pilots face extreme amounts of stress and pressure associated with their profession. Combine these work stressors with time zone changes, jet lag, mandatory overtime, overwhelming responsibilities, and disrupted sleep patterns, and the desire to take the edge off is a natural human response – especially amongst this vital profession. Many pilots often turn to drug and alcohol addiction to relieve the mental and physical pressures associated with the aviation industry.
The concern and focus on public safety is the primary purpose of the FAA, and there are many restrictions and guidelines that have a dramatic impact on a pilot’s career. As the growing issue of substance use disorder amongst the general population, our trusted pilots are not excluded from this epidemic. Many pilots face unique issues specific to their profession and must be considered when devising an addiction treatment plan.
Common Occupational Stressors for Pilots
There are a variety of reasons why pilots and other aviation professionals experience stress and extreme pressure on the job. Understanding these unique challenges that airline staff often experience is an important process of treatment for addicted pilots. It is also important to understand that stress cannot be seen as a small part of an airline job. Untreated stress can lead to chronic mental and physical conditions. Furthermore, if stress and addiction amongst pilots are not reported, it can affect not only coworkers but the general safety and wellbeing of the general public as well.
In order to develop a more informed perspective on common occupational stressors for pilots, here is some information gathered from an article on pilots and addiction:
- Pilots are not geographically stable, resulting in feelings of powerlessness, insecurity and instability within relationships, and overall stress.
- Piloting aircraft requires extreme focus, high-pressure, hectic occupational skills, and acute attention to detail for excessive hours.
- Long, stressful shifts can lead to burnout in the short-term and long-term.
- Pilots often feel responsible for the lives of everyone onboard the aircraft which ultimately entails a high level of responsibility and stress.
- Pilots often experience quick turnarounds, lack of adequate sleep, back to back shifts, and limited time to relax. Many pilots often fly in and out of 50-plus cities all while having to tackle different time zones and without the comfort of a five-day work schedule.
Many of these occupational stressors for pilots can ultimately lead to the following psychological and physical effects:
- Low morale
- Loss of purpose or motivation
- Sleep deprivation
- Feelings of powerlessness
- Intense desire to self-medicate with alcohol and/or other drugs
Addiction Trends Among Pilots in the Aviation Industry
In 2014, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a comprehensive report on drug use trends within the aviation industry. This integrative research had the primary purpose of uncovering whether, and to what extent, drugs were involved in aviation accidents that resulted in the pilot’s death. This study considered 23 years of data and included passenger and non-passenger flights. For the study’s comprehensive purpose, drugs screened also included over-the-counter (OTC) medication, prescription medications, and illicit drugs. Alcohol use was not included in this study.
Toxicology reports from this specific study showed:
- There was an upward trend in the use of all drugs.
- The most commonly found drug was the OTC drug diphenhydramine – an antihistamine and active ingredient in cold and sleep medications
- A small number of subjects’ toxicology reports included illicit drugs
- Over the prior 10 years, there was an increase in the percentage of pilots who tested positive for THC
- Pilots with a medical certificate were less likely to use controlled substances.
- Pilots testing positive for at least one drug increased from 9.6% to 39%
- Toxicology reports also showed an increase in all kinds of drugs that could inhibit a pilot’s ability to perform his job, including medications for seizure disorders and psychiatric illnesses.
The NTSB also concluded that the FAA does not provide adequate information to pilots about how certain drugs – even those found in cold medicines – can impair judgment and recommend that this issue be addressed.
Furthermore, in 2015, Fox News conducted an investigation to look further into pilot intoxication in the cockpit which ultimately shed a more in-depth look into pilots and addiction risks. (Fox obtained FAA documents regarding pilot intoxication for its investigation.)
- The rate of pilots testing positive for alcohol continues to trend upward over the years.
- From 2010-2015 FAA documents revealed that 64 pilots received citations for violating alcohol and other drug regulations.
- In 2015, 1,546 aviation professionals tested positive for one out of five illicit drugs in which they were screened.
- Each month, an average of one pilot is discovered to be over the legal alcohol limit (0.04%)
Stigmas: Pilots and Addiction
Surprisingly, pilots are not subject to mandatory sobriety tests before operating an aircraft. Obviously, the lack of mandatory sobriety testing combined with aviation occupational stressors and stigmas, many pilots fall into the vicious cycle of addiction. Pilots are members of an esteemed profession. Many of these professionals have a history of being dedicated, responsible, and of service to the general public. The pressure to maintain professionalism and expectations of being a pilot often results in psychological resistance to getting help for addiction.
According to the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), Quay Snyder MD, MPH, and president/CEO of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service stated: “The aviation community is subject to the same life stressors as the general population, but pilots, in general, often have personality traits that make them reluctant to seek mental health assistance.” Many pilots are trained to remain in control and to solve problems calmly, on their own. These ideas contribute to the multitude of stigmas associated with pilots experiencing addiction.
Alcohol and Drug Addiction Treatment for Pilots
Addiction is a progressive mental illness that does not discriminate. At Defining Wellness Centers, we pride ourselves on combining knowledgeable and evidence-based therapeutic treatment for every individual that enters our facility. Our team of compassionate licensed clinicians understands the importance of developing an individualized treatment plan in order to cater to the unique needs of pilots struggling with addiction. Our vision is to support each and every one of our clients to achieve long-term sobriety and overall wellness.
Pilots often face stigmas on addiction, surrounding their high-profile occupation in the aviation industry. Our experienced team recognizes the importance of the unique treatment services, anonymity, and privacy required for aviation professionals. Pilots often face the challenge of having access to cutting-edge addiction treatment technologies and therapies while also maintaining their careers. Defining Wellness Centers offers luxury addiction treatment programs specific to providing professionals with an environment that cultivates anonymity while also providing pilots with the opportunity to commit to sobriety without worrying about external factors.
Our luxury addiction rehab also incorporates a community of people who are in similar professional occupations and live similar lifestyles. This atmosphere allows each patient to connect with other recovering individuals who can relate to their unique experience. Our luxury drug and alcohol treatment programs are catered to fit the individual needs of each client while taking a cutting-edge approach to addiction recovery. Defining Wellness Centers is committed to respecting your privacy while also providing you with all of the tools you need to stay sober. Call us today for more information about our luxury addiction treatment program!