'You either lie or you seek help': Pilots and officials speak out at mental health summit

"That's not safety," the NTSB chairwoman said, as reforms are underway.

December 6, 2023, 7:12 PM

Pilots, flight attendants and experts met on Wednesday to discuss challenges and barriers that aviation professionals face to receiving care for mental health issues -- a gathering held in the wake of a serious incident in which an off-duty pilot allegedly attempted to crash a commercial plane in October.

"There is a culture right now, which is not surprising to me, that you either lie or you seek help," National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said during the meeting. "We can't have that. That's not safety."

The session follows the arrest of pilot Joseph Emerson, who is accused of attempting to turn off engines on an Alaska Airlines plane in the middle of a flight.

Emerson said he suffered from mental health issues, according to court documents. He gave a lengthy interview to The New York Times from behind bars in which he discussed his psychological state and what he said was his use of psychedelic mushrooms days before the flight.

Pilots are required to disclose to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) any physical and psychological conditions, as well as any medications they may be taking. Many pilots and air traffic controllers have expressed concern about revealing mental health information for fear of it adversely affecting their careers.

"We hear from the FAA only about 0.1% of medical certificate applicants who disclose a health issue are denied," Homendy said on Wednesday, referring to the agency's health screening process.

But that number likely doesn't tell the full story, she said: "First of all, we know mental health issues are underreported. And by the way -- that statistic accounts for all health issues combined."

Troy Merritt, a first officer for United Airlines, said he voluntarily grounded himself months ago after deciding to seek treatment for his mental health.

"In three months of starting medication, I've become a person who is no longer depressed and my anxiety has entirely subsided," Merritt said during a panel discussion. "I knew I made the right decision for myself."

Merritt said he's now working to get himself back in the cockpit but the process has proved lengthy and expensive. He said that since September, he's undergone "extensive computer testing" of his neuropsychological abilities and a two-hour assessment with an FAA-trained psychiatrist -- costing him more than $8,000.

He's waiting for the FAA to review his application for a special issuance medical certificate and was told to expect that process to take between six and 12 months, he said.

In this Feb. 23, 2023, file photo, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

"I have no regrets for taking care of my mental health," Merritt said. "I'm confident that when I do return to work, I will be a happier, healthier and better pilot than I was before."

Merritt acknowledged, however, that if there were fewer barriers to seeking mental health care in aviation, he would have sought treatment earlier and "avoided some of the most painful moments in [his] life."

The FAA announced Tuesday it will examine its rules for pilots and air traffic controllers on mental health. The agency will establish a rulemaking committee to "identify and break down any remaining barriers that discourage pilots from reporting and seeking care for mental health issues."

The committee must submit its recommendations to the FAA by March 2024.

Homendy said Wednesday that she'd like to see an amnesty provision in new regulations, allowing pilots to come forward and be honest about their mental health struggles.

She also said she'd like to see the FAA cut down on the amount of time it takes to process medical certifications, calling it a "very cumbersome, federal bureaucratic nightmare."

"I hear from so many pilots and others that they are waiting for, sometimes, years," she said, "and meanwhile, they are spending upwards of $10,000 for testing, more advanced psychological testing, which, again, is often not covered by insurance."

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