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FAA easing mental health barriers for pilots

Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup aims to get pilots who are grounded because of mental health issues back in the air.

FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Susan Northrup participates in a Meet the Administrator session during EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, July 29. Photo by David Tulis.

Northrup spoke about the FAA’s intentions to ease aeromedical rules for mental health concerns at the Business Aviation Safety Summit on May 9, AIN reported.

She addressed concerns about pilot mental health and discussed upcoming revisions to certification procedures and rules from the FAA that will make it easier for pilots to regain their medical certificates and decrease wait times for pilots grounded for mental health issues.

Additionally, Northrup spoke about the success of the four selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor medications approved for pilot use in 2010 and announced plans to add seven more SSRIs to the approved list.

Northrup, a private pilot and retired U.S. Air Force colonel, has been focused on addressing mental health issues within the FAA since her 2021 appointment as the most senior medical certification official . In 2022, Northrup participated in an AOPA roundtable discussion on pilot mental health at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, where she said, "Mental health conditions remain high on my list of things we need to address within the FAA," emphasizing her focus on early intervention and the importance of changing the aviation culture around mental health issues.

A 2022 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that 56.1 percent of pilots reported a history of health care avoidant behavior related to fear of losing their aeromedical certificate, and nearly 27 percent indicated misrepresenting or withholding information on their aeromedical screening for the same reason.

Northrup’s address at the Business Aviation Safety Summit, organized by the Flight Safety Foundation and National Business Aviation Association and held during Mental Health Awareness Month, also discussed the volume of pilots whose applications have a mental health component, aiming to “dispel the myths” about certification qualification so barriers to treatment can be destroyed, AIN reported.

Currently, 30 to 40 percent of applicants reviewed by the FAA have a mental health component, yet only 0.1 to 0.2 percent are denied certification or recertification.

However, AOPA recognizes the need for the FAA to provide transparent, repeatable, and logical decision paths for applicants to count on when self-identifying mental health issues.

AOPA, NBAA, and several pilot unions including the Air Line Pilots Association, Allied Pilots Association, NetJets Association of Jet Aircraft Pilots, and Southwest Airlines Pilots Association are pursuing legislation to help address needed and long-overdue reforms to the FAA’s medical practices and protocols. In the meantime, AOPA strongly supports the need for pilots to get the help they need, and will continue to report on advancements in FAA policies around mental health and provide resources for pilots. In addition, we encourage AOPA members to call our Pilot Information Center at 800-872-2672 for help in addressing these and other issues.

Lillian Geil
Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Advocacy, Pilot Regulation

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