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Having the hard conversations

National UND Aerospace symposium focuses on especially challenging topic: Mental health in aviation

Hosted by UND Aerospace, the 2022 Aviation Mental Health Symposium offered panel discussions and other conversations about mental health in aviation to a national audience. Participants in this panel were (from left to right) moderator Mark Volk Porter, UND commercial-aviation student and UpLift peer-support vice-chair; Dr. Mark Christenson, medical director of UND Student Health Services; Dr. Quay Snyder, co-founder, president and CEO of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service; Dr. Daniel Danczyk, psychiatrist and aviation-medicine specialist at the Mayo Clinic; and Dr. Michael Wolf, senior aviation medical examiner with Mayo Clinic Aerospace Medicine. Photo by Arjun Jagada/Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

By Mackinney Supola

In a time where mental health is more talked about than ever, one industry has been staying quiet, by most accounts: the aviation industry. But the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences has been trying to spark those conversations, and last week’s Aviation Mental Health Symposium was a schoolwide effort to do just that.

This past Wednesday and Thursday, individuals from multiple areas of the aviation industry gathered to “make new connections, explore new ideas and come away with action steps that can be implemented to normalize the conversation surrounding mental health and aviation,” said Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean & professor of aviation at UND.

This is the first time this event has been hosted on campus, although UND also sponsored the first symposium, which was held in Chicago last December.  “This year’s symposium brought together leaders from the FAA medical system, airline and union representatives, medical and mental health professionals, and several other universities to learn about and discuss issues regarding mental health in the aviation community,” said Robert Kraus, dean of the Odegard School.

More than 100 people attended in person and roughly 50 joined via video over Zoom. Attendees hailed from all over the world, thanks to the International Civil Aviation Organization promoting the event through the organization’s Mental Health Task Force. Many more people will be able to view the symposium via a permanent YouTube link as well; watch UND Aerospace’s page on YouTube.com for more information.

The purpose of this event was both to shed light on the issues surrounding mental health in aviation, and also to exchange ideas on how to generate conversation and improvement industrywide.

The event consisted of two full days of panels, keynote speakers and discussions. The first day was meant to be a day of learning while the second was a day of discussion and action ideas. Some individuals who attended included UND’s Student Health Aviation Medical Examiner, a Human Intervention Motivation Study (or HIMS) Aviation Medical Examiner — meaning a specialist trained in evaluating airmen for substance-abuse, alcohol-related or other mental conditions — from the Mayo Clinic, the chief resident from the Department of Neurology in the Brooks Army Medical Center, and many more.

Each panel concluded with a question-and-answer session in which audience members, both in person and on Zoom, could ask questions about the topics discussed.

Among the speakers at UND’s 2022 Aviation Mental Health Symposium was Dr. Quay Snyder, a physician and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate who serves as aeromedical advisor to the Air Line Pilots Association and as president and CEO of the Aviation Medicine Advisory Service. Photo by Arjun Jagada/Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

A Day of Learning

One panel on the first day centered on research and was moderated by Dr. William Hoffman, affiliated assistant professor of aviation at UND. Hoffman spoke about a research project he’ll be collaborating on at UND regarding mental health in collegiate aviation, an area that little research has been conducted in. “Research will likely be key when it comes to how we engage with the challenges aviation faces related to mental health in the years to come,” said Hoffman.

The symposium’s first day consisted of five panels as well as a keynote speaker, while the second day featured multiple breakout sessions where individuals could exchange ideas. Some of the topics discussed included future research ideas, peer support programs and the medical process.

Among the panelists on the first day were two UND students, Mark Volk Porter and Ryan Peene, and one UND alum, Emme Miller. Last spring, Miller had a vision for a program at UND to help students in need. She put her idea into action by creating a peer support program called UpLift, and after Miller graduated in May, Peene and Volk Porter took over as chair and vice-chair.

This panel discussion at UND’s 2022 Aviation Mental Health Symposium featured (from left to right) Erika Hiddinga, a UND graduate who serves as a United Airlines first officer and directs the airline’s Resilience course; U.S. Air Force Capt. Brittany Nores, a physical therapist; and Michelle Montgomery, wellness advocate in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences. Photo by Arjun Jagada/Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

A day of discussion and action ideas

The second day of the Mental Health Symposium concluded with the official launch of UpLift. The program is one of the first of its kind and won praise from multiple industry professionals at the symposium.

“I have high hopes for the future of UpLift, the newly launched peer support program at UND,” said Volk Porter.

“My main hope is that it becomes a tool for students to use to seek support when they need it most. During the conference, many presenters talked about early intervention and working through a problem early before it becomes a diagnosis, and I believe peer support programs are one of the most effective ways of doing that.”

Although peer support programs have been widely and successfully implemented at airlines,  they’ve been slower to arise at the university level. But more recently, faculty members of aviation colleges nationwide have been inspired by airline peer support models as well as the UND students responsible for the creation of UpLift.

The Aviation Mental Health Symposium was made possible by the John A. Hauser Mental Health in Aviation Initiative Fund. Hauser was an aviation student at UND when he died by suicide in 2021. The fund was established by his family shortly after his death.

“These efforts will not only support UND students but also help establish a national model for best practices regarding mental health in aviation — a model that other flight training organizations can look to for guidance and program implementation,” Bjerke said.

In the future, Bjerke continued, the hope is “to use these funds to keep the national dialogue going and encourage collaboration. We want to use these funds to impact students at all universities in a meaningful way.”

Mackinney Supola

About the author:

A certified flight instructor, Mackinney Supola is working toward bachelor’s degrees in Commercial Aviation and Communications at UND. She’s currently a marketing intern in the Dean’s Office at the University’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.