Friday, 27 March 2015

Why The Germanwings Tragedy Must NOT be Used To Further Stigmatise Mental Health Issues

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By now, almost everyone reading this will know of the dreadful events that took place on Monday morning, when Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the Alps, killing everybody on board.  We've gone from mourning a terrible, tragic accident, to trying to comprehend the horrifying realisation that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the aircraft into the mountains, seemingly in a bid to take his own life.  He took with him 149 innocent people, including babies and children.

There is nothing any of us can say that can take away the awfulness of such a situation.  149 people on that aeroplane did not want, or deserve to die in such a frightening manner.  149 people were murdered by Lubitz.  It would appear that Andreas Lubitz deliberately set the controls of the aircraft to ensure that it descended lower and lower, whilst retaining speed, until a crash was unavoidable.  On the cockpit voice recorder, found in the aircraft's "black box," the captain of the plane, father-of-two Patrick Sonderheimer, could be heard frantically trying to kick the door down, in an effort to avoid the disaster, after his co-pilot locked him out of the cockpit.  What must have gone through Sonderheimer's mind does not bear thinking about.  So to, for the crew and the passengers as they realised, in the final seconds of the plane's descent, what was about to happen.

The mass outpouring of grief that followed what we all thought to be a tragic accident was understandable and quite right.  Innocent people had died in dreadful circumstances - the natural response is to mourn them, whether we knew them or not.  Following the discovery of the black box and the appalling realisation that this was not an accident at all, the next natural reaction is anger.

Of course we are disgusted by the mere idea that one man could take well over a hundred innocent men, women and children to their deaths with him, in a deliberate plane crash.  Of course we are rightly shocked that so many people died needlessly because of one man's actions.  The reports of sick notes from doctors, signing Lubitz off work on the day of the crash, found ripped up and ignored in his home, only serve to deepen that anger.  When tragedy strikes, we often need something or someone to blame.  Something to help us make sense of a situation we cannot possibly comprehend.  It is therefore, completely understandable that people are appalled by what happened and find Lubitz's actions to be beyond contempt.

Andreas Lubitz

However, some of the media coverage of the story has only served to prove what a damaging, stigmatising attitude we still have towards mental health issues.  Lubitz is said to have had a history of depression.  It seems almost certain that his decision to crash the aircraft was taken in order to end his own life.  That he took 149 innocent people with him is deplorable and, standing as a barometer for public opinion, it's completely understandable that the media coverage is not going to be favourable towards Lubitz.  But instead of condemnation of his actions - along with sensitive reporting on mental health issues - we have headlines like this:

The Scum.  I know.

Think about that headline for a moment.  Lubitz's actions may well seem a million miles away from sanity to many of us, but madman is hardly a sensitive word to describe anyone with severe mental health issues.  All it does is further instill a sense of fear surrounding subjects such as depression and suicidal thoughts.  "These people are mad," it tells us.  It makes them "other."  People to be avoided.  People who should be seen as automatically dangerous.

Globally, more than 350million people are thought to suffer from some kind of depression.  This can range from mild stress and anxiety, to extreme mood swings and suicidal thoughts.  "Depression" encompasses a huge range of emotions and issues.  And with so many people around the world believed to be suffering from some form of depression at any time, it's highly likely that you know someone who fits the term.  It could be someone you love.  It could be a work colleague.  It could be the bloke who sells you your morning paper.

And yet, despite the condition being so common, many people are afraid to speak about it.  The social stigmas associated with mental health issues mean that many suffer in silence.  Depression can, therefore, be an incredibly isolating, lonely experience.

Around the world, an estimated one million people take their own lives each year.  That is a tragically high statistic, but, when viewed in association with the number of people who suffer from depression (350million), we can see that actually, the number of people who do go on to end their lives as a result is quite low in comparison.  It's important to note this, not because those 1million lives are unimportant - far from it - but because it brings to the fore the fact that too many people wrongly link all forms of depression with suicide.  For many, depression can be managed, to the point where the sufferer appears to live an almost completely normal life.

Of those 350million people all around the world, how many do we really believe want to kill themselves and take innocent people with them?  Whilst mental health issues can be severe and the answer is sadly probably not none, we can certainly assume that the majority of people who live with a form of anxiety or depression on a daily basis are not looking to commit mass murder, the way that Andreas Lubitz did.  And we must - however difficult it is, when combined with the very natural anger and grief we feel over recent events - try to remember that those suffering from extreme mental health need to be supported, rather than demonised, in order to help them to avoid this kind of horrendous outcome.

There obviously needs to be protection for the innocent.  If there is any question that a person suffering from severe mental health issues may do something to endanger other people's lives, then nobody is going to dispute that we must protect those people at all costs. That is why employers should take in interest in the medical history of their employees.  That is why we should have steps in place to support those who need it and to protect the innocent in the hope that something like this can never happen again.  We must support the person suffering as well as the people around them and in doing so, we must also make it clear that "depression" covers a huge range of emotions and issues.  It is overly simplistic and hugely offensive to suggest that anyone who has experienced depression is "mad" or a danger to society.

I've suffered on and off with depression for most of my adult life.  I've had times when I've wanted to harm myself.  But I have never, ever wanted to harm anyone else.  There is no sense in turning a completely appalling tragedy into a witch-hunt against those with mental health issues.  Not everyone who suffers depression will have the desire to take their own lives.  Not everyone who does take their life will have any wish to take anyone else with them.

As I said, I am not condoning Lubitz's actions and I never will.  I share the shock, horror and grief over Flight 9525 that is undoubtedly felt by everyone reading this.  I am in no way excusing what the co-pilot did that fateful day.  I stand alongside everyone else in extending my love and support to those families grieving for lost relatives, taken from them by an atrocious action.  I am not writing this to say that we should all calmly forgive Andreas Lubitz for what he did.  The anger that surrounds his actions is completely understandable and I share it.

But I am asking for the media to realise that shaming and demonising depression and mental health issues with their use of deliberately frightening, judgemental language will not help a single one of those 350million people out there, living with an illness that could affect any one of us.  Whilst we continue to demonise mental illness, we will never change anything for the better.  To honour the memory of those innocent lives lost on Monday, we should be redoubling our efforts to understand mental illness and depression.  We should be encouraging people to speak honestly and without fear and we should be looking for ways to ensure that this never, ever happens again.  

Mental illness is invisible. Unlike with cancer, or a broken bone, you cannot see the person's suffering, but that does not mean that it isn't there.  When an illness is "hidden," it becomes harder to understand and more easily stigmatised.  It's up to us - and those in the media - to end that stigma.

Using judgemental language that tars sufferers of depression with the same, appalling brush - even when that language comes from a place of entirely justifiable anger, reflecting the shock and grief we all feel at Monday's events - is not the answer.


  1. I honestly think that any pity for a mentally ill person gets to go out the window when that person takes down 149 other people with him, and as someone whose had multiple relatives commit suicide, including my father who almost too me along for the ride to the afterlife, I have no problem with people being disgusted by what that pilot did. If you want to kill yourself and choose to do it when 149 other people are going to die too, you're a lunatic.

    You don't have a choice when it comes to being depressed or not. I know that from extremely personal experience--I personally deal with it rather severely, and have been hospitalized for being suicidal, two, maybe three times. But the choice you have is if you're going to murder other people when you decide to kill yourself.

    I'm not seeing anyone stigmatize mental illness in all of what's happened. People are, rightly, calling him a lunatic (it's the dictionary definition), and are very rightly angry. What I AM seeing is calls for there to be a worldwide law similar to the US's where there must, without exception, be a minimum of two flight crew in the cabin at all times, and for there to be an emergency way in for the pilot, and for there to be something better than a yearly vision check and medical check-up where a doc merely asks if there've been any changes and then take the pilot at their word if they say no.

    I'm seeing a lot of people asking how the hell he could have been in the cockpit in the first place, and why there aren't stronger laws in place to have prevented something like this from happening.

  2. You seem to think I don't agree that what he did was atrocious, from the tone of this comment, which I've actually expressed over and again in this blog.

    But comments like "madman in the cockpit" etc *are* stigmatising to anyone with mental health issues. It's that use of frightening language - yes, what he did was abominable and unforgivable, but we already use terms like "mad" incorrectly so often, that even if it can be argued that we are using it correctly here, it's unhelpful to the MILLIONS of people who suffer depression, but have no intention of taking anyone's lives, even necessarily their own.

    Whether we should have any pity for Lubitz himself is a personal choice, considering his actions. I can't ever forgive what he did or condone his decision to murder 149 people, but also knowing many people with mental health issues and having been in a pretty dark place myself, I feel uncomfortable affording him no thought at all. "Pity" is the wrong word, but concern is closer to the fact. Concern that he might not have felt able to speak out, concern that chances to prevent this could have been missed, etc.

    But on the whole, we're actually arguing the same side as far as being disgusted by what happened and wanting to esnure it never happens again is concerned. I'm merely troubled by seeing the media lump all depressive conditions into one and promote unhelpful language into the mix.

  3. And it's depressing that I feel I have to add this, but seeing as it's so common for online misunderstandings to take place, obviously my concern is for his 149 victims and their loved ones much more than it is for Lubitz, himself. I simply think that this tragedy could open a door to a much needed, wider discussion on mental health and how to support those who need it, whilst also protecting the innocent who could be at risk from those people's actions, if left unchecked.

  4. Whatever was happening with Lubitz was not simply depression. He chose to mass murder also. I know that his depression probably had something to do with that decision, but what I hate about this way of looking at it is that it implies that if we get depressed enough we could be the same - NO, the vast majority of depressed people do not harm others, let alone murder many.

    1. Exactly. That's what makes me upset when I see stigma against mental health issues as a result of this tragedy. They're equating depression alone with being "mad" or having violent thoughts, which is harmful, because as you say, many, many people who are depressed wouldn't ever dream of doing what Lubitz did.


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