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Instilling ‘a culture of talking early and often’: UND hosts summit on mental health in aviation

In Chicago, UND Aerospace brought together industry, government and academic interests in addressing pilots’ mental health and wellbeing

Robert Kraus, dean of UND Aerospace, took part in the virtual co-event on UND’s campus, in the Memorial Union. Students and faculty tuned in to the day-long conference through Zoom. Photo by Mike Hess.

The University of North Dakota brought all sides of the aviation industry to the table on Wednesday to discuss mental health and wellbeing among the industry’s student body and workforce.

At the Aviation Mental Health Summit in Chicago, UND hosted members of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), U.S. Air Force, Aviation Medicine Advisory Service, several airlines and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).

The event took place at United Airlines’ ALPA headquarters. Researchers and faculty members from eight flight schools and universities, including UND, also joined industry stakeholders throughout the day’s proceedings.

And on UND’s campus, in the Memorial Union, more than 60 students and faculty tuned in for presentations and panels via Zoom. Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, led the campus co-event.

According to Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean, the conference brought together aviation programs, industry leaders, mental health experts and the FAA to share knowledge, explore ideas and promote mental health in the aviation community, especially among students and other aspiring aviators.

“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,” she said.

Kraus agreed. “It was heartening to hear the efforts and emphasis regarding safety, security and wellbeing from the FAA, aviation medical and mental health professionals, airline and union representatives, and how collegiate aviation programs can benefit from what the airlines have implemented,” he said. “Growing our peer support programs and providing training to key individuals will help with our goal of normalizing discussions of brain health and mental wellness.”

Throughout the day, UND students and faculty participated in the presentations, panels and discussions happening at the Aviation Mental Health Summit. Photo by Mike Hess.

UND President Andy Armacost, in his opening remarks, reflected on the catalyst for the summit – the tragic death of UND Aerospace student John Hauser, who died in October in what is believed to have been a suicide. Hauser’s parents, Anne Suh and Alan Hauser, also spoke at the outset of the summit.

The John A. Hauser Mental Health in Aviation Initiative Endowment, which the Hausers established shortly after John’s passing, supported the day’s events.

Andy Armacost

“Although there had been conversations within the industry and on campuses about mental health issues, John’s death certainly amplified those efforts,” 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.”

“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 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.”

“As we work hard to address this issue, I would like to speak to the students,” Suh continued. “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. There is no shame in asking for help, or in wanting to feel better.”

Steve Dickson, FAA administrator, shared remarks via video message.

“What I love so much about our industry is the passion that all of us have for aviation,” Dickson said. “That passion also means that all of us are hesitant to take any risks, real or perceived, when it comes to regulations that could threaten our ability to fly or otherwise participate.

“For many years, being honest about mental health has been one of those risky areas. But I’m here to tell you that it’s a perceived risk, and we’re doing our best at the FAA to make that very clear. … The important thing to stress to our pilots is to please ask for help.”

“Countering myths with factual evidence should help reduce the stigma of seeking help,” said Kraus, reflecting on the summit’s conversations. “And providing a confidential and trusted network of peers, mentors, or professional counselors will get people the help they need when they need it.  The hope is that we can instill a culture of talking early and talking often.”

A more in-depth account of the Aviation Mental Health Summit is available via UND Today.