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Collegiate Peer Support and Beyond

The topic of mental health has been on my mind long before studying at the University of North Dakota. Attending an aviation college changed how I viewed it. I learned there were issues with how the FAA dealt with mental health, but it seemed too taboo and too big a problem to solve. While a childhood friend of mine went to school to study psychology and openly talked about it, my college friends whispered in class about how simply seeing a therapist would ruin our careers. Why would we waste our time and money in school just to throw it all away for talking to a stranger for an hour every other week? The solution seemed obvious to us: don’t get help. 

The worst-case scenario for not getting help happened my senior year when John Hauser died by suicide in October 2021. I’d never met John - but his death deeply affected me. Those that were affected started asking the basic question. What can we do to prevent this from happening again? 

UND responded to that question by hosting the Aviation Mental Health Summit, and a classmate and I were invited to attend. Many participants knew talking about the problem was not enough. Action items were developed at the summit with the help of multiple aviation colleges, the FAA, airline pilots, John Hauser’s parents, and more. One of these items was to form a collegiate peer support program (PSP) modeled after programs that already existed in the airlines and US Air Force Academy. 

I spent my final semester at UND working to create the first collegiate aviation peer support program in the country, UpLift, along with the help of fellow classmates John Dulski, Kallen Wachi, Mateo Garcia, and UND Aerospace faculty. We met with students from other aviation colleges to hear their perspectives and spoke with leaders from industry PSPs to learn the framework. UND Aerospace students already had free access to the university’s counseling center, but it was underutilized due to the stigma. To build students’ trust in Uplift, we found it would be necessary to manage the program through a third party as an extra layer of confidentiality. This was accomplished through an embedded psychologist in the aerospace program leading the peers and their training, as well as the Centre for Aviation Psychology handling the administration side. 

Peers are trained before each fall semester on resources for handling a variety of cases, and are equipped with methods to avoid burnout. The aviation student body faces the general struggles of college experiences, along with the stress of completing and paying six figures for flight training. Peers are not exempt from these stressors. 

We were unsure if we could recruit our goal of 15 peers – yet the number of applications far exceeded our expectations. So many students were willing to get past the stigma and make a difference. Selecting the first peers was a difficult task, since the program needs to carry on after peers graduate. I believe we chose the right students, as many of us have already graduated and UpLift is still thriving in its second year. 

UpLift Chair Mark Volk Porter said, “This semester, the UpLift program has had great success with a large increase in cases, especially with our relatively small size of students served. We’ve worked very hard to get our freshman class introduced to and comfortable using the program.” He noted that being able to speak at freshman orientation, in classes, and in the aviation-specific dorm introduces the concept of PSPs to the next generation of aviators. Even if students do not utilize the program while in college, as they move on in their careers it creates a cultural shift where it is accepted to talk about and take care of mental health.

2023-2024 UpLift Peers 

Beyond UpLift my senior year, I led the Student Air Traffic Controllers Association (SATCA) on a trip to Washington DC. We had the opportunity to meet with North Dakota Senator John Hoeven’s staff, tour the FAA headquarters, and speak with the head of the Air Traffic Organization (ATO). The subject of aviation mental health came up at these events, since air traffic controllers (and other branches of the aviation industry) are required to meet FAA medical standards. The responses we received affirmed the fact that we still have more work to do.


SATCA With Leaders of the ATO 

Nearing graduation, I wanted to work toward something that I could take with me beyond college. With input from classmates and advocates at ALPA, I wrote a letter template anyone can use to contact their federal representatives about aeromedical reform. There is a student and a non-student version. Just type in your own information in the highlighted sections and use this site to find your representatives. Sending this letter advocates for Congress to provide the resources the FAA needs to change its policies. This effort has led to contact with representatives’ staff from multiple states, yet there is still more to be done. 

Peer support programs and contacting federal representatives for reform are essential to the aviation industry today. Unfortunately, PSPs are used as a band-aid for the underlying problem of the FAA’s outdated aeromedical policies. Peers cannot be a replacement for professional care. The question I asked myself early on still exists and aviators are still forced to choose between talking to a therapist and their careers. I am advocating for change so that people no longer need to ask, “Why should I invest my time and money in this career just to throw it all away for seeking professional help?”


-Emmelinne Miller

Member, Board of Directors
Pilot Mental Health Campaign

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