FAA Relaxes Ban on Antidepressants

The Federal Aviation Administration is lifting a long-standing ban on psychiatric medications, allowing some pilots who take select antidepressants to return to duty.

Starting today, the FAA will consider granting waivers, allowing pilots to fly while taking Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, or Celexa. The generic equivalents of these drugs will also be admitted.

The nearly 70-year ban originally grew from concerns over possible side effects of psychiatric drugs, like drowsiness. FAA officials have cited medical advancements, which reduce the risk of adverse side effects, as one reason behind the policy shift.

The old rule often forced pilots who suffered from depression to hide their illness, either by taking antidepressants in secret, or by remaining untreated so as to not lose their certification to fly.

"I'm encouraging pilots who are suffering from depression or using antidepressants to report their medical condition to the FAA," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt in a news release on April 2nd. "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."

Pilots will be evaluated on a case by case basis, and waivers will only be granted to pilots taking medication for "mild to moderate depression." Pilots will also have to prove that they have been "satisfactorily treated" with medication for at least 12 months before being allowed to fly.

Additionally, the FAA announced they will offer a grace period to pilots who have been secretly taking antidepressants. Pilots will have six months to disclose any antidepressant use or diagnosis, without fear of civil enforcement action.

Recently diagnosed pilots who want to begin medication will be subject to a one-year waiting period, and pilots must be examined by an aviation medical examiner every six months to one year in order to be recertified. All pilots are required by law to disclose all medications they are taking.

While many mental health professionals think the ban reversal is a huge step in the right direction, others are worried that the year-long waiting period might encourage some pilots to keep their diagnosis under the radar to avoid losing experience and wages.

"Pilots are going to take a huge personal sacrifice to acknowledge being depressed and getting treatment," Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatry professor at Emory University School of Medicine, told ABC News. "So I think what's going to happen as a result... is pilots who become depressed are going to be anxious about coming forward. They're going to fly when they're depressed -- and that is something that does worry me."

Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Army already employ aviation guidelines that allow some pilots to fly while taking antidepressants.

According to a 2009 Columbia University study, more than 10 percent of the U.S. population takes antidepressants, making them the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the country.
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