Photo credit: Euronews.com
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.
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.