February 25, 2013

'US drone pilots get stress disorders like those in combat do'

Pilots of US drones face mental health problems like depression and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, American military scientists have found.

"Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days," said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the first study of its kind.

"They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don't do that. They get out of there as soon as possible," Otto was quoted as saying by the New York Times.

Otto said she had begun the study expecting that drone pilots would actually have a higher rate of mental health problems because of the unique pressures of their job.

Since 2008, the number of pilots of remotely piloted aircraft, the US Air Force's preferred term for drones, has grown fourfold, to nearly 1,300. The Air Force is now training more pilots for its drones than for its fighter jets and bombers combined. Those figures do not include drones operated by the CIA in counter-terrorism operations over Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.

The new study looked at the electronic health records of 709 drone pilots and 5,256 manned aircraft pilots between October 2003 and December 2011. Those records included information about clinical diagnoses by medical professionals and not just self-reported symptoms.

After analysing diagnosis and treatment records, the researchers initially found that the drone pilots had higher incidence rates for 12 conditions, including anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

But after the data were adjusted for age, number of deployments, time in service and history of previous mental health problems, the rates were similar, said Otto.

The study also found that the incidence rates of mental heath problems among drone pilots spiked in 2009. Otto speculated that the increase in stress levels might have been the result of intense pressure on pilots during the Iraq surge in the preceding years.

The study found that pilots of both manned and unmanned aircraft had lower rates of mental health problems than other Air Force personnel. But Otto conceded that her study might underestimate problems among both manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, who may feel pressure not to report mental health symptoms to doctors out of fears that they will be grounded.

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