March 30th, 2012
12:55 PM ET

Welcome aboard: Airlines, mental health and stigma

Editor's Note: Bob Carolla is the director of media relations for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation's largest nonprofit, grassroots mental health education, advocacy and support organization.

By Bob Carolla, special to Erin Burnett OutFront

Let’s first overlook headlines like “insane on a plane” and news anchors who refer to pilots and flight attendants as “crazy” or “nuts.” We’ll comeback to them at the end.

Instead, let’s consider issues that emerged this week when on March 27, a JetBlue airline pilot experienced a medical emergency in flight. It came on the heels of a March 10 incident in which an American Airlines flight attendant also experienced a medical crisis aboard an aircraft on the ground. In the flight attendant’s case, bipolar disorder was involved. In the case of the pilot, no diagnosis has been reported to date.

But does the diagnosis ultimately matter? A medical crisis is a medical crisis. Even though both incidents are viewed as involving mental health, the fact is that other medical conditions could easily be involved.

Besides mental illness, potential causes of sudden changes in behavior can range from diabetes to extreme sleep deprivation or medication side effects, Heart disease, epilepsy, impaired vision and other conditions all may potentially affect public safety.

Besides the airline industry, medical issues are relevant to other forms of transportation, such as buses and railroads, and professions such as police, doctors and lawyers, to name a few. To the degree that mental health “screening” has been raised for discussion relative to airline crews, one needs to consider it from a broader perspective. Policies and practices already exist in many areas of social and economic activity. Some points to consider as discussions occur:

• The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) allows health questionnaires and medical examinations when necessary to qualify for specific positions—provided they occur after an offer of employment has actually been made and they are applied to all persons hired or employed in positions of that kind.

• The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) withholds medical certification for pilots who take certain medications. Since 2010, the FAA has made an exception for pilots who take one of four approved anti-depressant medications to treat mild to moderate depression.

• It is essential that across the board, policies governing professions and medical concerns, including mental health, not result tin creating disincentives for individuals to seek medical help when they need it. Getting help should not mean putting their livelihoods at risk.

People who encounter mental health problems may hesitate or resist getting help because of the stigma that traditionally has been imposed on mental illness. No one wants to be considered weak. No one wants to be called “a nut case.” That brings us back to the subject of headlines and comments by news anchors in reporting the JetBlue story.

On NAMI's Face Book page this week, one person posted the comment: Too many negative words like crazy, insane, and whacko are being used.” Instead, the news media could educate the public not just about mental illness, but about other factors such as tumors, hormonal imbalances, or seizures.

Does the news media use disparaging language—which serves both to trivialize and stigmatize an illness—for conditions other than psychiatric ones? What if a news story about a medical emergency on airline flight had involved a heart attack or for that matter fatal food poisoning?

Let that be part of the discussion too.

Filed under: Opinion
soundoff (One Response)
  1. smita

    Great PR cover by the airlines! I was waiting to hear from the airline how they handle this reputation check!!!!

    March 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply

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