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Should airline pilots – and lawyers – reveal their mental illnesses?

As the world ponders the sensibility of psychological testing of airline pilots before we even know the diagnosis of GermanWings pilot Andreas Lubitz, comes word that the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Florida Supreme Court for the state Board of Bar Examiners’ policy of evaluating applicants for mental health diagnosis or treatment.

According to the South Florida Daily Business Review, the investigation began in December and focuses on the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, an agency of the Florida Supreme Court, which oversees bar admissions and determines whether applicants should be admitted to the Florida Bar by reviewing lengthy character and fitness files.shutterstock_110537564

Among the questions asked: Has the applicant ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, such as bipolar, depression or psychosis, according to the article.

Florida isn’t the only state that asks mental health questions and the Justice Department has made it clear it doesn’t like the questions.

The Justice Department has gone so far as to write a letter to officials Vermont and Louisiana – states that also ask such questions – saying the questions are illegal. While questions about conduct are appropriate, “questions based on an applicant’s status as a person with a mental health diagnosis do not serve the court’s worthy goal of identifying unfit applicants, are in fact counterproductive to ensuring that attorneys are fit to practice and violate the applicable civil rights laws,” the letter stated.

Among the questions Louisiana asks: “Within the past five years have you been diagnosed with or have you been treated for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoia or other psychotic disorders?”

There are valid arguments that can be made for asking such questions of those seeking employment in certain jobs – those in which we place our lives in the hands of another, such as airline pilots. But should we ask the same questions of doctors and the folks who drive school buses?

And who should decide which mental illnesses should be included in the questions? As a dual-diagnosed recovered alcoholic who spent a decade of her 30+ years in journalism covering courts – from murder trials to divorces – the biggest mental illness I saw affecting the ability of lawyers was alcoholism.

As I see it, if you’re going to allow licensing boards to ask questions about mental illness, you better include alcoholism. Do you really want a pilot or surgeon with a nasty hangover flying your plane or cutting into you? And wouldn’t you want someone who had the common sense to get treatment rather than someone who is in denial about their mental illness?

Do you really think they are going to respond truthfully anyway?

Maybe for certain professions the applicant should be required to give permission to a physician to reveal debilitating conditions to the licensing or regulatory authority. That makes more sense to me than asking about a mental illness that the applicant is either in denial about or will certainly lie about.

There is a thin line between perpetuating a stigma and discouraging treatment and safety. I’m not sure where that line is or who should draw it. But we better ask and answer these questions of ourselves before we allow others to do so.

Man with question image available from Shutterstock.








Should airline pilots – and lawyers – reveal their mental illnesses?

Christine Stapleton

Christine Stapleton has been a journalist for 35 years. She is now an investigative reporter for The Palm Beach Post. In 2006, began writing a blog for PsychCentral called Depression on My Mind. Her latest blog, Addiction Matters, draws on her 19 years of sobriety and her coverage of the drug treatment industry in South Florida.

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APA Reference
Stapleton, C. (2015). Should airline pilots – and lawyers – reveal their mental illnesses?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Apr 2015
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