The strict standards and extreme demands placed on Air Force pilots facilitate their reputation as being among the sharpest in the United States military. Yet this group, while at times set apart, is subject to the same pressures as the general population that can manifest in depression. Additionally, the rigid demands of flight accompanied by the pressure of mission execution impose strain on pilots that may result in adverse effects if left otherwise untreated. While some may jest about the limited role of the Air Force in COIN strategy or potential re-incorporation into the Army, potential depression among pilots raises concern about their well-being and of their effectiveness in the cockpit.
A recent report indicates that the Air Force is changing its stance on use of anti-depressants among pilots. This policy shift is largely the result of two factors: 1) the improvement in drugs that treat depression, and 2) the recognition of a “disincentive to report depression” among pilots.
Facing a continued desire or pressure to fly, pilots can feel compelled to hide conditions they are experiencing. This example of policy change reveals a desire to address the overall well-being of those serving in the military, and hopefully is a step toward reforming a culture of that fosters medical mis-information among soldiers.
While questions of “flying under the influence” may arise, regulations build in security measures to ensure pilot safety. Specifically, pilots taking approved medication can fly after one year of successful treatment without experiencing side effects that lead to safety concerns during flight. This lengthy window for evaluation will accommodate pilots who need treatment. However, this policy does raise questions about military personnel in other potentially stressful environments other than a cockpit. For example, how do depression and subsequent treatment affect sailors aboard submarines that may not surface for long periods of time? What factors should be taken into account when evaluating soldiers for advanced training in urban warfare? As the nature and environment of conflict change, so should the approach to evaluating those equipped to serve.
As stated before, this policy change seems to be a positive step in advancing the well-being of those in the military. But it should not signal a loosening of regulations that prevent certain individuals or behaviors from being admitted in the military – a service which requires impeccable focus whether in the cockpit of a fighter or in the streets of Kabul.