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The FAA has lifted a ban on antidepressant use by pilots.
The FAA has lifted a ban on antidepressant use by pilots. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
In a reversal of a longstanding policy, the Federal Aviation Administration will allow licensed pilots to fly while they are taking some commonly prescribed medicines for depression.
"I'm encouraging pilots who are suffering from depression or using antidepressants to report their medical condition to the FAA," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement announcing the shift. "We need to change the culture and remove the stigma associated with depression. Pilots should be able to get the medical treatment they need so they can safely perform their duties."
So, starting next week, taking medicine to deal with depression won't be an automatic grounding order.
There are a few catches.
Pilots can only have mild-to-moderate depression, and they can only take one of four medicines: Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, or Lexapro. (Generic equivalents are available for the first three.) After sifting through the medical literature, the FAA figured the side effects from those medicines wouldn't interfere with a pilot's ability to fly a plane.
Perhaps the highest hurdle is the requirement that pilots show they've been treated for a year and that their symptoms are under stable control.
We called the FAA just to make sure about that, and a spokesman told us that a pilot just beginning treatment would, in fact, be grounded for a year. There will be a six-month amnesty period for pilots who've been undergoing successful treatment and hadn't previously disclosed it. They can step forward without risking FAA enforcement action against them and should be OK to fly in a few months.
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association supported the changes and has some more details on the move here.
In a series of questions and answers on the change, the FAA said in the last six years the agency's medical office hasn't moved to revoke the medical clearance for a pilot solely because he or she withheld information about a diagnosis of depression.
But the agency also acknowledged that it doesn't think the proportion of pilots with symptoms of depression would be any different from the roughly 10 percent of the population at large. Not all symptoms require treatment with medicine, of course.