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The Federal Aviation Administration is changing a generations-old policy banning pilots from taking antidepressants, saying the new policy will improve safety by bringing to the surface pilots who either ignore signs of depression or lie about their use of medication for fear of losing their licenses to fly.

Beginning Monday, pilots with mild to moderate depression will be allowed to fly while taking antidepressants if they can demonstrate they have been satisfactorily treated for at least 12 months.

The FAA also will begin a six-month amnesty period, during which pilots who use antidepressants can step forward without fear of penalties. The pilots will be grounded until they can demonstrate they have been stable for a year, although those who can prove a history of successful medical treatment should be able to fly “within a few months,” the FAA said.

The new policy will “absolutely” improve safety, said Randy Babbitt, head of the FAA and a former airline pilot and union chief.

“The concern that we have today is we have people who are either self-medicating or not seeking a diagnosis. Either of those is unacceptable,” Babbitt said. “This change … will allow those people to get the treatment, allow us to monitor and return them to the cockpit [as] safer, better pilots.”

FAA officials said that they do not know the extent of depression among pilots but that pilots are probably representative of the larger population, in which 10 percent are believed to suffer from depression.

Nor does the FAA know how many pilots have removed themselves from flying status because they suffer from depression, a condition that now bars them from flying. Nor do they know how many take antidepressants in violation of FAA policy.

Commercial pilots under the age of 40 are required to undergo a medical exam by an FAA-certified physician every year; those over 40, every six months. But the examination focuses largely on the pilots’ physical health, and there is no formal assessment of the pilots’ mental health.

The FAA says pilots have a regulatory duty and professional responsibility to not fly if they know they have a physical or mental condition that makes them unsafe to fly.

But the FAA concedes pilots aren’t always forthcoming, especially if honesty could cost them their job.

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Article courtesy cnn.com