Stigmatizing Depression and Suicide Won't Help Explain Germanwings Tragedy

Andreas Lubitz, the copilot authorities claim intentionally downed a plane in the French Alps week, was treated for suicidal tendencies before receiving his pilot's license, the New York Times reports.  

German prosecutors said Lubitz was treated by psychotherapists “over a long period of time” but did not provide exact dates. During followup doctors' visits, “no signs of suicidal tendencies or outward aggression were documented,” the Times noted.

French prosecutors claim Lubitz, 27, was at the wheel of Germanwings Airbus A320 jetliner last Tuesday when he set it on course to crash into the mountains in southwest France. The captain was locked out of the cockpit and pleading with Lubitz to open the door in the moments before the fatal crash. All 150 passengers on the plane were killed.

Over the past week, commentary about Lubitz’s emotional health has dominated headlines, with the Daily Mail UK running a front page story titled, “Suicide pilot had a long history with depression. Why on Earth was he allowed to fly?”

Then there is the racial dynamic. If Lubitz were Muslim, would the media be calling this an act of terrorism instead of focusing on his mental health? I certainly believe they would be exploring the terror angle if that were the case, even though authorities have ruled out the possibility of terrorism.

But I want to focus on the troubling portrayals of mental illness I’m observing.

It will not be easy to determine why Lubitz by all accounts purposefully crashed the plane. But social media conversations about this tragedy and headlines like the Daily Mail's are worrisome because they can lead to dangerous stereotypes about depression and suicidal ideation.

Here in the United States, the CDC reports that nearly 39,518 people committed suicide in 2011; most who kill themselves do so with a firearm. According to the World Health Organization, 800,000 people commit suicide each year worldwide. The CDC also reports that 8.3 million people, or 3.7 percent of the U.S population, reported having suicidal thoughts in 2008-2009. A poll in South Korea reports that half of that country's teenagers reported having suicidal thoughts in the first half of 2014.

Given the stigmas around suicide and depression and people's unwillingness to discuss mental health issues publicly, those figures are likely much higher. There is a strong chance that many of us know a friend, family member or acquaintance who has once thought of suicide, or perhaps attempted it. But as far as the fear of aircraft-assisted suicide goes, only 24 out of the 7,244 fatal airplane crashes in the United States from 1993 through 2012 were caused by that method, according to a 2014 studyIt is extremely rare.

There are a wide range of reasons that can lead to people ending their own lives or attempting to. But the coverage of the Germanwings crash seems to suggest that people who have experienced suicidal ideation or depression (and have overcome it) should be permanently deemed unfit to take on stressful assignments.

I haven’t been able to find any data that suggests this is true. In fact, the Federal Aviation Agency allows pilots who have been diagnosed with clinical depression to return to their flying careers after successfully undergoing treatment. And if Lubitz were suicidal, it doesn’t mean he would want to harm others. As Michelle Cornette, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology told New York Magazine, only two to five percent of suicides are murder-suicides. Not only are Lubitz's actions rare, but as Cornette added, "in true homicide-suicides, the primary intent or motive is suicide, and the homicide is secondary."

Bottom line: we may never know the specifics behind Lubitz’s actions or why he chose to kill a plane full of innocent people, but the commentary around his mental health is growing more stigmatizing, harmful and exaggerated by the day.


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