WASHINGTON - The government is lifting a 70-year-old ban on letting pilots fly while on antidepressants, citing drug improvements and an unforeseen side effect of the restriction: Depressed pilots kept flying but just kept their conditions secret.
Under the new policy, pilots who take one of four antidepressants - Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa or Lexapro - or their generic equivalents will be allowed to fly if they have been successfully treated by those medications for a year without side effects that could pose a safety hazard in the cockpit.
The change is aimed in part at clueing the government in on how many pilots suffer from a disease whose symptoms can include thoughts of suicide, FAA officials said.
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 percent of Americans were taking antidepressants. FAA officials assume the percentage is about the same among pilots.
Under the ban, airline and other pilots who suspected they were depressed but wanted or financially needed to fly generally 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 - a federal crime. Neither is acceptable, said Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt.