For Your Health
For Your Health

News from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences

From the Dean: Addressing mental health needs

As I am sure you are aware, there is a burgeoning awareness of the importance of finding ways to better address the mental and behavioral health issues that are impacting too many of our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and others. Susan and I sadly have had personal experience with this, as the families of six of our friends have experienced the loss of a loved one related to mental health/substance abuse issues. The problem is both a local and national/international one; and although North Dakota is special in many ways, it is not immune to the challenge.

Even our students appear to be more stressed over the past few years. Maybe it’s related to the stresses of the pandemic. Maybe it’s because there is less stigma with acknowledging mental and behavioral issues and thus more are acknowledging their challenges. Whatever the reason, we have tried to not just respond to student needs but be proactive in addressing those needs. For example, the UND SMHS now has two wellness advocates who work with our medical and other students and help them address such issues. And working with Andrew McLean M.D., M.P.H., chair of our Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, we are considering additional initiatives we can employ to assist our students and others who might need such support.

In this light, I was very pleased to participate in a meeting earlier this week to see how the SMHS might partner with the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences to better address related challenges. Ken Ruit, Ph.D., our associate dean for our Office of Education and Faculty Affairs, joined me in a meeting with folks from Aerospace, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and UND Student Health Services to see how we might be able to work together to better address some of the unique health care issues that impact students and certified pilots. You may be aware of the tragic crash of an airplane piloted by a UND student almost two years ago that apparently was an intentional act by the overwhelmed student. Our meeting was coupled with a two-day Aviation Mental Health Symposium that Aerospace sponsored earlier this week. It turns out that both nationally and locally, there has been a rather dramatic decline in the number of aviation medical examiners (AMEs) who perform the periodic physical examinations required for all student and certified pilots. This problem is especially acute for AMEs certified to participate in the FAA’s Human Interventional Motivation Study program, a specially designed program to assist pilots with substance use disorders regain their medical certification and be allowed to pilot an airplane. We have a similar program in the state, the North Dakota Professional Health Program, dedicated to the mental health and substance use challenges among healthcare providers. This program is open to medical and other health professions students.

Accordingly, we explored opportunities as to how the various participants – UND SMHS, Aerospace, UND Student Health Services, and the FAA – might partner to better address these issues. We also thought about ways we might cooperate in the future to address the health aspects of human space travel. This aspect of our discussion was especially salient given the launch of Artemis I earlier on the same day we had our meeting! As you may know, the Artemis program intends to return human beings to the moon sometime in the next few years, and the launch Wednesday of the world’s most powerful rocket on a 25-day unmanned journey to the moon and beyond was a major milestone in that quest.

It was an encouraging meeting that I hope will lead to new and creative ways for the SMHS to partner with others (especially Aerospace) to better address the needs of our students, and also to anticipate new opportunities in the future. A good beginning to be sure!

Joshua Wynne, MD, MBA, MPH
Vice President for Health Affairs, UND
Dean, UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences