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UND participates in aviation mental health summit, looks for solutions following deadly crash

UND arranged the summit after John Hauser, a sophomore commercial aviation student, was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 18. An initial investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found no mechanical problems that would have caused the crash, and Hauser’s parents later told UND that he was dealing with mental health concerns.

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Robert Kraus, dean of UND aerospace, participates in the Aviation Mental Health Summit on Wednesday, Dec. 15.
Submitted / University of North Dakota
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For UND administrators, participating in the Aviation Mental Health Summit on Wednesday, Dec. 15, was more than a chance to meet and talk with other collegiate aviation programs and government entities. It was an opportunity to look for solutions to a problem that runs throughout the aviation industry.

UND arranged the summit after John Hauser, a sophomore commercial aviation student, was killed in a plane crash on Oct. 18. An initial investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found no mechanical problems that would have caused the crash, and Hauser’s parents later told UND that he was dealing with mental health concerns.

The summit took place in Chicago, where UND administrators met with representatives from several other colleges with flight training programs, members of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Airline Pilots Association. UND aerospace students, faculty and administrators participated in the summit online, from the ballroom in the Memorial Union.

“This was an incredible event, hosted by UND,” said Armacost, who was in Chicago for the event. "The conversation was rich there were many perspectives shared, and ideas about specific initiatives that we can start addressing. I challenge each of the participants at the close of the meeting to continue reflecting upon the discussion and to continue generating ideas for how we can solve this critical problem."

Also attending from UND was Elizabeth Bjerke, associate dean of aerospace. Bjerke moderated a panel of experts in mental health in the aviation industry.

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Robert Kraus, dean of aerospace at UND, spoke to the Herald the day before the summit. He attended the summit online, and led the event on UND’s campus. He said he was taking a goal-oriented approach to the gathering.

“We're trying not just having a bunch of people get together and talk,” Kraus said. “We do want solutions. What's the low hanging fruit, what are the things that we can implement soon?”

Kraus said UND would like to hire another counselor, who would nominally work with the UND Counseling Center, but be physically placed with the aerospace college. That counselor would also need to be certified in Human Intervention Motivation Study – called HIMS.

“These are the doctors and therapists that get involved when there is substance abuse or alcohol abuse, or mental health treatment,” Kraus said.

Kraus also discussed the idea of implementing a peer-mentorship program, with the idea of getting students to talk to one another, if they are experiencing difficulty. UND could go a step further, and get those mentors some training, possibly a mental health first aid course sometimes offered by Altru Hospital. Kraus said he recently participated in that program.

“About a dozen of us took that and it was fantastic,” Kraus said. “I would actually highly recommend for people that are involved in mentoring and working with others, that that program is really good.”

Central to the issue of mental health in aviation is the stigma associated with seeking help. Kraus said student pilots are hesitant to seek help for mental health related issues because they are afraid they may be grounded. Getting grounded means once they have completed a course of treatment and have been cleared to fly again, they graduate later, and are behind others in establishing seniority when they begin working. The airline industry operates on seniority Kraus said, which can be a stressor for students.

“In the big scheme of things, in a lifespan, it's not that big of a deal,” Kraus said. “But when you're focused on finishing and getting to the airlines as soon as you can, a six-month grounding can be devastating in some cases.”

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But that stigma also extends throughout the industry. Commercial pilots have the benefit of a pilot union which can protect their jobs, but if they need to take time off to take care of their mental health, they are also missing out on establishing or maintaining that seniority. Coming back from a period of three or six months of not flying may mean missing out on flying a desirable route, or even a plane with passengers.

Kraus said the summit is a way to highlight those stressors students and pilots' experience.

The summit featured a number of speakers, including a video message from Stephen Dickson, administrator of FAA. A number of colleges were also in attendance, including Southern Illinois University; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; Western Michigan University; Auburn University; Purdue University and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Those colleges are usually UND’s competitors, when it comes to attracting students. When it comes to addressing mental health concerns in aviation, Kraus said they are anything but.

“There is great camaraderie and collaboration between collegiate aviation programs,” he said. “It's refreshing to see that communication take place.”

Related Topics: ANDREW ARMACOST
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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