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NTSB Chair urges reforming FAA mental health policies

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy called for a paradigm shift in the FAA.

"It's not just the right thing to do. It's the safe thing to do.
What's unsafe is pretending the status quo is acceptable."

To open the Aviation Safety Summit on December 6, 2023, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy delivered the following opening statement:

Sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ageism, ableism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, microaggressions. 

Gun violence, incarceration, childhood neglect or abuse, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, financial stress, job stress, fatigue or burnout, unemployment, poverty, marital trouble, divorce, loneliness, surviving a natural disaster, or one that's man made. Traffic violence.

Having or loving someone with substance use disorder. Infertility, pregnancy loss, postpartum depression, parenting, empty nest syndrome, aging parents, menopause, the loss of a pet, a chronic illness, a serious injury, a terminal diagnosis, or the death of someone close to you. 

This is life, along with what I hope are far, far too many wonderful experiences to count. But none of us struggles when things go well. 

I know for a fact that many of the issues that I just mentioned I've experienced in my life, I'm sure we all have. 

Because evolution has wired us with a negativity bias. Bad events affect us more profoundly than good ones. No human being is immune. I'd also bet every single person in this room and watching this recording later has personally faced these challenges. As I just mentioned, odds are you faced more than one. 

In any given year, about one in five US adults has a diagnosable mental mental health condition. More than half of us will over the course of our lifetime. The vast majority are not severe, but stigma around mental wellness is real. 

You'll notice that we are wearing the international color today for mental wear health awareness of green. It can make asking for help so hard - it can take real strength to ask for help. Which is one among one of the many reasons this next statistic is so high. 

In the US less than half of people with a diagnosable mental health condition receive treatment. There are already so many obstacles between needing help and getting it - obstacles that bring more stress to a person who's already struggling. 

No one - NO one should have to think twice about their job before seeking help. 

And yet here we are today because that's not currently the case in aviation. It's somewhat of an open secret. That the current rules incentivize people to either lie about their medical history when it comes to mental health or avoid seeking help in the first place. Pilots, mechanics, air traffic controllers and others are known to avoid seeking mental health care under report their use of mental health care and medication. 

"Leaders like us need to talk about it, get comfortable being uncomfortable, to help provide a safe space for others to get treatment, without fear of losing their livelihoods."

And let me be clear, the safety risk comes from a culture of silence around mental health, not about seeking help. The safety risk comes from a culture of silence around mental health. 

A culture that empowers people to get the care they deserve to be healthy in mind and in body that will strengthen safety. We hear from the FAA that only about .1% of medical certificate applicants who disclose a health issue are denied. First of all, we know mental health issues are underreported. So, the whole reason we're hosting this event. And by the way, that statistic accounts for all health issues combined that .1%. 

Those who do report the use of medication are sidelined for no less than six months. Those who seek professional counseling can be caught in the frustrating maze of federal bureaucracy to get back to work. It's an unacceptably long wait when you realize many Americans over 60% live paycheck by paycheck to paycheck to paycheck. Adding insult to injury, many are forced to spend 10s of thousands of dollars in the process - that's on top of their lost income. 

As a result, an untold number of workers across aviation fear disclosing mental health struggles will result in the loss of their professional identity, their livelihood, and of course, expose them to stigma. 

In aviation, you are in effect punished for following the rules around disclosure. This creates a pervasive incentive. And I'm very concerned about the safety consequences. This is an anecdotal though, we will hear some powerful firsthand accounts today. It's backed up by research. We'll also discuss how the current FAA system works. 


But I think it's safe to say no one wants a system - no one - that disincentivizes transparency or one that discourages aviation professionals to disclose what's really going on in their lives. 

I'm extremely heartened by my recent discussions with administrator [Mike] Whitaker, whose commitment to the issue I believe are deep and sincere. 

We're here today out of the broadly shared concern that a system that shames and silences people can lead to unacceptable safety risk, especially right now. 

This is a very challenging time, we're very much still feeling the effects of the pandemic, especially in aviation, where we're seeing a concerning uptick in close calls and near misses. There are headlines all the time documenting the stressors and risks workers face, ground crews, pilots, flight attendants, inspectors, maintenance workers, dispatchers, we know air traffic controllers are facing staffing issues, mandatory overtime, outdated equipment, infrastructure and lack of technology, not to mention less opportunity for meaningful value added training. That stress on top of stress on top of stress and it's falling on the shoulders of those on the frontlines of safety. 

All that's to say the current strain on our aviation system and its workforce cannot be underestimated. I've said that many times. That is why now perhaps more than ever, everyone needs to feel safe seeking the help that they need and deserve. Our stellar aviation safety record depends on it. And it is stellar. We have the safest airspace in the world. In fact, we're enjoying a record level of aviation safety. 

But that doesn't mean we're done. Safety is never complete, there is always progress we can make - must make - for the people on the frontlines. And for every passenger. 

The NTSB is a small agency, people would be surprised to realize we only have 437 employees that address all modes of transportation. We might be a small agency, but we have a big voice. And we're going to use it. 

We show up for people who need us in the worst of times. And then it's our duty. It's our mission to fight for them. And there are a lot of people who we're going to hear from today who are also fighting. I think that they are incredibly brave. I think folks who are not part of this are also incredibly brave for speaking up. 

We heard from so many people wanting to speak today. I could go for days, months, years, with the amount of people in a roundtable that wanted to speak today. It's incredibly brave. To reach out to me personally by email to say you wanted to talk about, what you struggle with - that is incredibly brave. 

Dr. Hoffman, who I'm honored is here today, has said the following, recognizing that mental health is on a dynamic spectrum, and that many pilots could benefit from talking to a professional mental health provider at some point in their career has the potential to keep pilots flying healthy, while also increasing the safety in the system. 

I couldn't agree more. Except I'd apply it to the entire aviation industry. Mental health doesn't affect those in aviation any differently than it affects others around the world and safety sensitive roles. 

We're all human. Which means we're all affected by the challenges I shared earlier, and so many more. 

Regardless of your profession, you must feel safe, getting the help you need when you need it. Leaders like us need to talk about it, get comfortable being uncomfortable, to help provide a safe space for others to get treatment, without fear of losing their livelihoods. It's not just the right thing to do. It's the safe thing to do. What's unsafe is pretending the status quo is acceptable.

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