UND Hosts Summit on Mental Health in Aviation

The event was held in response to the death of a UND aviation student in October.

Robert Kraus, dean of UND Aerospace, took part in the virtual co-event on UND’s campus. Credit: Mike Hess/UND

The University of North Dakota hosted a summit at the United Airlines’ ALPA Headquarters in Chicago on Wednesday to bring all sides of the aviation industry to discuss mental health and the well being of the industry’s student body and workforce.

The summit was prompted by the loss of UND flight student John Hauser as the result of an airplane accident in October. 

Members of the FAA, the U.S. Air Force, the Aviation Medical Advisory Service, several airlines, the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), and researchers and faculty from eight flight schools and universities discussed the dangers of mental illness and the resources available to pilots who may suffer from it. 

Elizabeth Bjerke, an associate dean at UND, was a main coordinator of the summit. 

“This direct dialogue with the industry and with medical experts is crucial,” Bjerke said. “This topic of mental health hasn’t been as widely discussed on the university aviation side as it has been within most major airlines, whose pilots have stood up peer support groups and training efforts in recent years.

“Through this multidisciplinary group of industry professionals, academics, and medical experts, we’re hoping to establish a collaborative network, one that addresses the needs of our students and prepares them for careers as professional pilots,” Bjerke said.

University of North Dakota students and faculty were able to tune into the summit from campus. 

There had been talk on campus about having an open discussion with students and faculty about mental health. But Hauser’s death, coupled with the fact that his parents have said publicly that he suffered from mental issues, moved up the timeline on the summit. 

The event took place at United Airlines’ ALPA headquarters in Chicago. Credit: Mike Hess/UND

“Although there had been conversations within the industry and on campuses about mental health issues, John’s death certainly amplified those efforts,” UND president Andy Armacost said. “His legacy inspires all of us to make sure we get this right, and that we support our students to the best of our abilities.”

The John A. Hauser Mental Health in Aviation Initiative Endowment helped fund the event, which Anne Suh and Alan Hauser established shortly after their son’s death.

The Hausers attended the summit and talked about mental health and the necessity of an open discussion about the issue. 

“After John died, our family felt strongly that we wanted to do something in his memory and to honor the joyful life he led,” Anne Suh Hauser said. “We also wanted to help enact changes at the college level, and at the FAA level, so this would not happen to another aviation student or their family.”

She went on to speak directly to students who may be in the same situation as her son. 

“It’s OK and normal to feel sadness, grief, anxiety and anger in your life. It’s also OK to ask for help at any point, especially when emotions begin to feel uncomfortable or overwhelming,” she said. “There is no shame in asking for help, or in wanting to feel better.”

Mental Health and Pilots 

Dr. Quay Snyder, president and CEO of the Aviation Medical Advisory Service, spoke on the steps pilots can take to ensure their health and safety and emphasized on industry efforts to destigmatize mental health. 

Pilots are keen to keep mental health out of conversations and hide it from family, friends, and their workplace, in fear they will lose medical certifications and their job if they seek help. Snyder noted this is largely not the case anymore.

“This direct dialogue with the industry and with medical experts is crucial.”

Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean, University of North Dakota

UND faculty members, associate professor Shayne Daku, and assistant professor Keri Frantell, joined alum William Hoffman, a U.S. Air Force neurologist and an aeromedical examiner for the FAA, to discuss research involving pilots seeking health care and treatment. For example: 

  • Pilots may have higher rates of depression, as well as heart disease and melanoma.
  • In one major study, 56 percent of 4,300 pilots surveyed said they engaged in “unauthorized pilot aeromedical behavior.” This could mean that pilots participated in informal medical care, did not disclose issues, flew despite symptoms, or used prescriptions medications without disclosure. 
  • 75 percent said they would use a sanctioned intervention to address healthcare behavior.

In addition, 68 percent of UND students said they’d use an anonymous hotline if it was available, but only 43 percent would use it if it were not anonymous.

Director of the FAA’s Medical Specialties Divisions in the Office of Aerospace Medicine Dr. Penny Giovanetti is responsible for the FAA’s medical appeals process, employee drug and alcohol testing programs, and evaluation and management of psychiatric cases.

She noted recent changes the FAA made in regards to policies related to the use of antidepressant use and performance as it relates to mental health. 

“The FAA has recognized that pilots want to be able to talk to other pilots about concerns they have,” Giovanetti said. “Senior leadership of the Aerospace Medicine Department is staffed with experienced pilots, and all four executives of the department have private pilot’s licenses.”

The FAA has expanded the list of medications supporting mental health that pilots can use while flying. The medications must be disclosed and used only in specific circumstances.

Under the new rules, pilots will be restricted to one of four FAA-approved antidepressants— Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, and Lexapro—and are required to see a psychiatrist every six months.

Mental Health Resources 

For more information on mental health within the aviation community and how you or someone you know can get help, please visit the organizations below: 

Based in Texas, Ashley is the former Marketing Manager at FLYING and focuses deeply on training and education. She graduated from the Baylor Institute for Air Science with a Bachelor's in Aviation Science and holds an MBA specializing in Marketing. She is an also instrument rated private pilot and licensed FAA dispatcher.
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