It’s with great sadness that we report the death of a member of Emirates cabin crew as the result of a suspected suicide. Initial reports suggest the male cabin crew member of Jordanian descent was found unconscious in his shared Emirates-owned flat in Dubai. It’s been claimed the victim took his own life after being sacked by the airline for taking excessive sick leave. He reportedly suffered from depression.
We haven’t been able to verify the claims which were first made on a private Facebook group used by Emirates cabin crew. We’ve reached out to both Emirates and the Dubai authorities for more information but hadn’t received a reply at the time of publication.
It’s unclear at this stage what support Emirates was providing the cabin crew member leading up to his death. Serving staffers that we have spoken to say they aren’t aware of any support programmes for cabin crew who suffer from mental ill health, although that’s not to say the airline doesn’t have a programme in place.
We need to talk about mental health
According to the Mental Health Foundation, depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide. In fact, in a recent report by the World Health Organisation, the UN body estimated that globally 350 million people are affected by depression.
Mental ill health is a reality of many people’s lives and it can affect us all, sometimes unexpectedly, at some point in our lives. Depression happens and it can be managed. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, however, claims stigma and discrimination surrounding depression and mental ill health in aviation still exists.
Sufferers of various conditions fear being grounded for weeks or maybe even months – worse still is the very real prospect of being made redundant. In some countries, there’s very little support for aircrew who suffer from perfectly manageable conditions. There is much room for improvement.
“Human factors” a cause of many aviation accidents
The problem is that the aviation industry is built on a safety first culture. With ‘Human Factors’ a key cause of many aviation-related accidents it stands to reason that people who suffer from mental ill-health shouldn’t be employed in the industry. Many aviation authorities, for example, prohibit people with a history of serious psychiatric conditions such as Schizophrenia.
It’s all too easy to point to the 2015 Germanwings 9525 tragedy as reason for banning anyone with mental ill health from being employed as aircrew. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the Captain out of the flight deck and deliberately flew the Airbus A320 into the side of a mountain.
All 150 passengers and crew were killed. At the time, Lubitz was battling a severe depressive episode and had in the past been declared unfit to fly as he was being treated for depression.
More recently, questions remain about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 – With some commentators suspecting a member of the flight crew deliberately crashed the jet in a murder-suicide.
Mood disorders shouldn’t be the end of your aviation career.
But mood disorders can be successfully treated – many aviation authorities, including those in Europe, North America and Australia, allow both cabin crew and flight crew to fly if they have been successfully treated and are no longer suffering any symptoms. The general rule of thumb is that cabin crew should be clear of symptoms for at least four weeks before being allowed to fly.
Airlines too recognise that their cabin crew and pilots could suffer from a mood disorder at some point in their careers – in fact, the effects of flying such as sleep deprivation, time zone changes and social isolation could even be a trigger. Sufferers should be treated with compassion and support offered.
Of course, every case is different and proper medical evaluation will determine whether someone is fit to fly – but past history or successful treatment for depression shouldn’t automatically stop someone being employable. What you then end up with is the very real prospect of candidates lying about their past medical history.
Rules vary by region
Unfortunately, not every airline will employ someone who’s had a history of mental ill health. In 2014, 22-year Brit, Megan Cox said she had her offer of employment withdrawn by Emirates after she admitted to previously suffering from depression. The airline said she did not meet its “pre-conditions” of employment.
“Emirates has a clear and fair recruitment process and is an equal opportunity employer. The Cabin Crew environment is both physically and mentally demanding with crew regularly experiencing body clock changes and irregular sleeping patterns, which can take a toll on the body,” the airline said in a statement at the time.
“Given our crew are responsible for the safety of hundreds of passengers it is important that all candidates meet the pre-employment conditions.”
Strict rules could be counterproductive
Emirates is by no means alone in having such a seemingly harsh approach to mental ill health – no matter how successfully it has been treated. Again, there is the risk that sufferers lie to secure a job or cover-up relapses in a bid to stop the airline sacking them. At the same time, the effects of flying could make the condition worse.
We contacted the General Civil Aviation Authority in the UAE for comment and specifically the rules it has on aircrew who suffer from treatable mood disorders – the GCAA had not replied at the time of publication.
In March, a female member of Emirates cabin crew died after apparently jumping from the open door of a parked Boeing 777 aircraft at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. There is suspicion the crew member fell to her death in a deliberate act after being threatened with dismissal.
Earlier this year, there were also unverified reports that a member of Qatar Airways cabin crew was found dead in her accommodation in Doha. Again, the death was attributed to suicide but the Qatari authorities refused to comment on the matter.
Depression is a fact of life. One in four people will suffer from the condition at some point in their lives. Pretending that it doesn’t exist or that sufferers can simply be excluded from employment in the aviation sector is shortsighted at best.
Many airlines and aviation authorities have realised that they can support sufferers – here’s hoping more will follow suit.