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I am in my late twenties. To put it bluntly I have a history of mental illness going back to my teens. My quick summary:

  • Diagnosed with depression and prescribed Wellbutrin in my teens. I discontinued without doctor approval and stopped going to psychiatry.
  • Diagnosed with ADHD in college and prescribed a litany of drugs to "try" including Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse. All were stopped with approval by my doctor because of horrible side effects and lack of any therapeutic effect.
  • Mid 20s (~1 year ago) had an anxious breakdown due to an online harassment campaign and voluntarily committed to a mental hospital, spent 48 hours there. Left the hospital with an SSRI and Klonopin (benzo) prescription.
  • Recently I discontinued SSRI use and switched back to Wellbutrin, have not taken Klonopin in 6 months or so but my doctor has had me keep it around in case of panic attacks.

I would say I have my depression under control but I have had 1 panic attack in the past six months.

I have been interested in aviation since I was a child and recently considered the idea of potentially pursuing a PPL, but I'm not hopeful. I'm 100% certain this would not be possible in the near future due to my current medication (Wellbutrin.) My doctor is confident that I can taper off this medication in the next 3 months however, and he views me as more or less stable. I don't feel anxious or depressed anymore and I haven't in some time. I like to think this is all behind me.

Is there any chance of attaining a medical in the far future (maybe 3 years of total stability from now), or is it pretty much not going to happen in this lifetime? Is it even a good idea to attempt to learn to fly, or should I stay far away from an airplane forever given my history?

Thanks for reading.

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  • $\begingroup$ You've identified, quite rightly, that flying is not on the cards right now. Anything else will require the assessment of an Aviation Medical Examiner. I'd wait until you've been off the drugs for a few months before starting down that track. $\endgroup$ – CatchAsCatchCan Sep 24 '20 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ One thing I've learned to be always true is that if you're asking yourself whether you should fly or not, the answer should always be no. It could be weather conditions, medical issue, you're not feeling well or simply just tired, if you come to the point where you're asking the question, it's because deep down you know it's not the best idea. Take care of yourself first and then go learn to fly if you get the green light from medical staff. The plane will always be waiting don't worry ^^ $\endgroup$ – MaximEck Sep 24 '20 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ In general, I'd repeat this answer, although with the caveat that @CatchAsCatchCan is almost certainly correct that you'll probably be better positioned to start the process when you have 6 or 12 months without meds & without any issues. Best wishes to you! $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Sep 24 '20 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ Surely a simple "No, it's not possible" is much more helpful to the OP here than dreamy I'm-ok-you're-ok discussions? $\endgroup$ – Fattie Sep 25 '20 at 11:31
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I have no medical degree, but I can give you some things to consider:

Even as a hobby, flying is at times a high stress environment. You must stay alert at all times, and the ability to maintain functionality even when all hell breaks loose is highly desirable. It's not all clear blue skies and three degrees of freedom. You got checkrides, new things to learn, old things to remember, and pretty much everything you do might end up badly.

You correctly point out that medication that effects cognitive capabilities is a strict no-go. As such, a history of using them might not exclude the possibility of ppl level medical certificate, but would require jumping through some hoops, with no guarantee of succes.

Any history of suicidal tendencies is pretty much a 100% no-go. Just a not, you do not mention this, but I'll let the cat out of the bag anyway.

Your anamnesis has quite a listing of various mental issues. You do realize this is a major obstacle, which is a good start. Loading high expectations on PPL licence would not serve your recovery well, but my non-expert opinion backed up by some real life examples is, that a person can shed even quite severe mental issues, and regain & maintain "full functionality" without any medication.

In your case the minimum requirement would be a long period of stability. Be honest to yourself and do not push it. If you get on top of things naturally, you might be good to go for PPL in some point in future. But do not risk you mental health on it, not but pushing towards it, and not by hanging on to it if you get there. As I wrote in the beginning, flying is a high stress environment at times, and it can trigger all kinds of unexpexted reactions. There is absolutely no loss or shame in putting the safety of yourself and the others above your dreams.

Flying is so much fun it's hard to describe it, but there are many other things just as fun, even more so.

Dream big, but don't let your dreams run you, or they will ruin you.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Any history of suicidal tendencies is pretty much a 100% no-go." okay $\endgroup$ – Abdullah Sep 25 '20 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yes @Abdullah, does that not compute? You must remember that there are no absolutes. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Sep 25 '20 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ If you can convince both the AME and the FAA (by way of convincing at least one psychologist) that your history with suicide is completely in the past, you can get your medical back. Takes a while. $\endgroup$ – Erin Anne Sep 26 '20 at 7:01
  • $\begingroup$ Hence the "pretty much". It's not 100%, but close. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Sep 26 '20 at 11:15
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You don’t say where you are, so I’ll answer for the US. If you’re somewhere else, the answer may or may not be similar.

The FAA has a dim view of mental health issues requiring any medication. They are rightly concerned about the issue being treated and what may happen if you stop taking the drugs, and they’re also concerned about the possible side effects, which are often worse than the condition being treated. It does not matter whether you are experiencing those side effects, just that they are possible.

In general, for any mental health issue, they’re going to want a letter from the treating doctor saying that you have been off all medication for at least six months and remain stable.

That said, the FAA has actually approved a few such drugs; maybe yours is one of them, or maybe your primary doctor can switch you to one that is and see if it works well enough. I suggest you book an “eval” appointment with an AME near you, explain the details, and see what options you have.

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Other answers have given you a flat statement about how this applies to a PPL. I'm going to slightly frame-challenge your question though.

Why are you looking at a PPL as the only type of aviation?

I used to fly hang-gliders. Learning to fly hang-gliders and paragliders does require some minimum physical fitness, and for you to be mentally able to learn the movements, but this is all. And once you've learnt to fly, a powered hang-glider or paramotor rig can fairly easily be added.

Or going up a step from there, weight-shift microlights (up to a certain maximum weight) do not require a PPL either.

Gliders may need a PPL, depending on where you are. This may not require a formal medical though.

All the above give you routes into aviation which do not require a third party to check your medical history and authorise you to fly. However in all the above cases, and any other skill-based sport (such as scuba diving or climbing), you are required to self-certify that you have no issues which would interfere with your ability to carry out the sport. If you suffer from panic attacks, you cannot truthfully say that this is the case. (Thanks to StephenS for this addition.)

I do concur with other posters that any form of aviation can be a high-stress activity at times. If stress triggers panic attacks, this will become highly dangerous. You should also be aware that it can sometimes take a little while to build your skills; and you should be aware that simple misjudgements happen and you're sometimes going to have a bad landing. If you're likely to regard these as failures of you as a person, instead of just as mistakes which happen, this may not work well with depression.

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  • $\begingroup$ @Jpe61 It's certainly not cheap compared to something like mountain biking! :) But like you say, it's a damn sight cheaper than a PPL. $\endgroup$ – Graham Sep 25 '20 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ Gliders require a PPL in the US. You don’t need a medical, but you do have to sign a sworn statement that you’re not aware of any medical condition that would make flying unsafe, which the OP can’t do truthfully. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Sep 25 '20 at 13:45
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I speak not as a medic but as someone who has a history of depression.

  1. One thing to consider is, do you drive? Have you ever had to pull to the side of the road as the result of a panic attack? You can't pull over when you're flying a plane.

  2. Did you ever run into the back of the car in front when it stopped unexpectedly at a junction? Was it because your thoughts were taken up with stress or worry? (I did this once)

  3. Every kind of drug for mental health problems is likely to slow your reactions.

  4. You will have to spend many hours in a small cockpit with an instructor. They may be very uncomfortable if they know you are subject to panic attacks. Some may not mind!

You owe it to yourself and everyone else to be certain the problems are behind you. I know from personal experience how easy it is to think one day, "I feel wonderful! I'm cured!" and to stop taking the meds only to have a relapse weeks or months later.

What to do

If you are really serious you should be able to go without meds safely for at least a year.

You may be able to get a trial flight as a passenger where the instructor lets you take over the controls briefly. You may find that the noise and sense of disorientation, not to mention airsickness, isn't the fun you thought it would be. Some people have one flight and that's enough.

Be aware that you will have to have a medical exam before being allowed to take lessons. They may check your medical history. Look up the regulations in your local area - they will probably be on the flying school's website. If in doubt and you don't want to prejudice people against you, you can phone a school where you aren't going to fly and make enquiries about how all the medical stuff works. You should be able to chat to a medical examiner.

EDIT See important comment by @Ralph J below. Check all of this out before committing to spending a lot of money.

If you are still serious then wait that year.

In the meantime learn as much as you can. Get a realistic flight simulator for your PC and learn all about the different instruments and controls. Focus on simulated planes that are used for tuition at your local flying school.

Study and take the theory exams!

Become an expert at everything except the real thing.

If after a year you have been episode free and meds free then you can consider taking proper lessons.

Good luck. I know from my own experience what you are going through. I also believe that most of life's problems can be overcome with determination.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice answer. I would say that being off meds is not necessarily required though - what's required is for you to be stable with whatever your current treatment plan is. Some mental health conditions can only be treated with meds, and there's no shame in that. So I wouldn't say have a year without meds, but rather have a year without any change required to whatever meds (if any) may be involved, and without any incidents requiring external assistance such as panic attacks. $\endgroup$ – Graham Sep 25 '20 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham - I agree provided that the meds are known not to reduce reaction time or alertness. $\endgroup$ – chasly - supports Monica Sep 25 '20 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ In the U.S. at least, they will check your medical history because you're required to provide it. It's a serious criminal offense to omit any element of it from the FAA's form. So the OP needs to understand up front that the medical history will be reviewed before the FAA medical will be issued. One can do some training (ground school, some flights with an instructor) before the medical is issued, but if you're going to spend the $$ to start down that path, you want to know up front if you'll be allowed to complete it. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Sep 25 '20 at 13:33

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