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Air Force Pilots Now Can Start Mental Health Treatment and Won’t Immediately Be Pulled from Flight Status

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An Air Force policy change will allow pilots to receive 60 days of mental health treatment without being taken out of flight status, a notable policy update as the service works to destigmatize airmen seeking care.

Prior to the policy update, which was publicized in a May 1 press release, if an airman began seeking treatment for mental health-related illnesses or concerns, they would then need a return-to-duty waiver to fly, a requirement that often kept pilots grounded for extended periods.

The update to the Air Force’s Medical Standards Directory and Aerospace Medicine Waiver Guide now allows airmen to “receive 60 days of treatment for mental health concerns” before that waiver to return to the skies would be necessary, the service said in a news release last week.

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“This change benefits airmen across the Air Force seeking treatment for stress, post-traumatic stress and other mental health-related maladies,” the service said in the release.

Maj. Jane Marlow, a C-130J Super Hercules pilot and one of the leaders on the working group evaluating the policy, said airmen seeking medical attention under the old policy would sometimes be grounded for months after seeking treatment.

“Like so many of my peers, I delayed seeking care until I was in a non-flying assignment because I knew that, as a pilot, the moment I picked up the phone to schedule that appointment, I would be grounded for an indefinite period,” Marlow said in the news release. “I knew that I was, without a doubt, a safer pilot, a better leader, and a stronger wingman because of the care I received — yet I was still required to spend months in a non-flying status because of my diagnosis.”

Those long delays in resuming flight status in the past have harmed careers, hindering training and eligibility for different opportunities, the service said. Under the policy change, there is no mandatory waiting period, and flight surgeons can submit a waiver without any wait for a pilot to return to flight.

A comprehensive study from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences released last month analyzed Air Force suicides in 2020 and found that dozens of factors contributed to the 117 department-wide suicides that year, including “stigma about mental health” and “problems with mental health care access” among them, the findings showed.

According to the 2022 Pentagon suicide report, the latest military-wide data available, active-duty service member deaths increased slightly from the prior year to 331, up from 328 in 2021, Military.com reported.

Gen. Mike Minihan, the four-star commander of Air Mobility Command, has openly advocated for changes to the Air Force’s mental health policies, highlighting his own mental health struggles in the process. This latest policy revision was spearheaded by his command’s “Warrior Mental Health” working group, according to the news release.

“If you want to look at a pilot with PTSD, you’re looking at one right now,” Minihan said during a conference at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, last month. “This policy affects me and, if it affects me, it affects someone in your unit. They have it, haven’t sought help for it and [are] suffering in silence.”

Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at VeteransCrisisLine.net.

Related: Overall Military Suicide Rate Dropped, But Active-Duty Deaths Increased Slightly, Pentagon Reports

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