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NTSB head: ‘Culture of silence’ on mental health ‘is affecting safety’ in aviation

The head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned a “culture of silence” regarding metal health is “affecting safety” in aviation.

“No one … no one … should have to think twice about their job before seeking help,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said during opening remarks at Wednesday’s summit on mental health in the aviation industry. “And yet, we’re here today because that’s not currently the case in U.S. aviation.”

Homendy stated pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and others are known to underreport their use of mental health care and medication.

“Let me be clear: the safety risk comes from a culture of silence around mental health,” Homendy added. “A culture that empowers people to get the care they deserve … to be healthy in mind and in body … that will strengthen safety.”

The stigma around mental health has resulted in a fear of disclosing mental health struggles among those in the aviation industry, Homendy argued. She added this fear is compounded by the concern such disclosures will lead to a loss of workers’ professional identity, their livelihood and “expose them to stigma.”

Homendy said she is “very concerned about the safety consequences” and pointed to the impact of the pandemic, staffing issues, mandatory overtime and “less opportunity” for training

The summit comes on the heels of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announcing a new committee intended to find ways to take on these issues.

“The ARC [The Mental Health and Aviation Medical Clearances Rulemaking Committee] will provide recommendations to the FAA on ways to identify and break down any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues,” the FAA said in a statement, adding the same issues will be addressed for air traffic controllers.

The committee is expected to submit its recommendations to the FAA by the end of March 2024. The FAA will soon name those expected to serve on the committee.

The summit heard first-person accounts from those in the aviation industry who have either experienced mental health issues themselves or had family members who did so.

CNN reported NTSB Vice Chairman and pilot Bruce Landsberg spoke during the summit and detailed his own struggles following the death of his son, who served in the military and died of PTSD.

Landsberg reportedly told the summit he voluntarily stopped flying, though he did not report it to the FAA. He said he waited around six weeks until he felt he was ready and took his first returning flight with an experienced pilot, CNN reported.

Concerns over pilots’ mental health were further fueled in October, after an off-duty Alaska Airlines pilot allegedly attempted to turn off a plane’s engines mid-flight.

Joseph David Emerson, 44, who was authorized to ride in the cockpit’s jump seat, was speaking with the pilots when he allegedly said, “I’m not OK,” and tried to grab two handles that activate the plane’s fire suppression system and cut off fuel to its engines.

An in-flight emergency was declared and the plane was diverted to land in Portland, Ore. Emerson told officers he believed he was having a “nervous breakdown” and had not slept in 40 hours. He also admitted to taking psilocybin, found in psychedelic mushrooms, about 48 hours prior, federal prosecutors said.

Emerson faces a federal charge of interference with flight crew members and was indicted on Tuesday on 83 counts of recklessly endangering another person and one count of endangering an aircraft in the first degree.

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