It’s Time to Change: Don’t Demonize Depression!

Like everyone else I was shocked and saddened on Tuesday to hear of the crash of an Airbus 320 (GermanWings Flight 4U 9525 from Barcelona to Dusseldorf)  in the French Alps.  That initial reaction turned to consternation and confusion when it appeared that flying conditions were good and no “Mayday” signal was sent for the eight minutes it steadily lost altitude until it hit the mountains., and then to complete incomprehension yesterday as evidence emerged that the crash, which resulted in the deaths of 150 people, appeared to have been the result of deliberate action by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.  It seems that the co-pilot waited for the pilot to leave the cockpit to use the lavatory, then locked the door and proceeded to put the plane on a descending trajectory designed to take his own life along with everyone else on board. The horror of these events is beyond imagining. It’s also beyond imagining what could have possessed Andreas Lubitz to do such a terrible thing, for this was an act of mass murder.

Although it seems a paltry gesture, I’d like to take the opportunity to express by deepest condolences to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone who lost their life on that day, including Andreas Lubitz whose family must be experiencing pain on a scale the rest of us are completely unable to contemplate.

I’m not going to speculate at all about what drove this man to behave the way he did. I’m not qualified to comment and it would obviously not be helpful to anyone for me to do so.

That has not stopped the gutter press, however, who have seized upon the fact that Andreas Lubitz had a history of depressive illness to sell copies of their rags by labelling him “a madman” and splashing lurid details about his private life. A Daily Mail article (to which I refuse to link) clearly implies that anyone who has ever suffered from depression is potentially a psychopathic killer. Not for the first time, I am ashamed that people exist with so sensitivity that they could think this sort of journalism could ever be justified.

What this tragedy says to me is that only a better understanding of mental illness will help prevent similar things happening in future and that will not happen if the media continue to demonize those who suffer from depression and/or other mental health problems because the stigma that causes makes it so difficult to seek treatment. I know this for a fact. It is difficult enough to ask for help, even without  headlines screaming in your face from the front page of the Daily Fail or the Sun or even the Daily Telegraph.

I agree completely with Professor Sir Simon Wessely, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists who is quoted in today’s Guardian as

The loss of the GermanWings Airbus is a ghastly horror. Until the facts are established, we should be careful not to rush judgements. Should it be the case that one pilot had a history of depression, we must bear in mind that so do several million people in this country.

It is also true that depression is usually treatable. The biggest barrier to people getting help is stigma and fear of disclosure. In this country we have seen a recent fall in stigma, an increase in willingness to be open about depression and most important of all, to seek help.

We do not yet know what might be the lessons of the loss of the Airbus, but we caution against hasty decisions that might make it more, not less, difficult for people with depression to receive appropriate treatment. This will not help sufferers, families or the public.

A conservative estimate is that about one in every four people in the UK suffers from depression at one time or another, many of whom struggle with mental illness without either asking for or receiving medical help. Help is there, but we need to much more to encourage people to use it.

Here’s another quote from Time to Change, for whose organization in Wales I wrote the piece linked above,

The terrible loss of life in the Germanwings plane crash is tragic, and we send our deepest sympathies to the families. Whilst the full facts are still emerging, there has been widespread media reporting speculating about the link with the pilot’s history of depression, which has been overly simplistic.

Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate – but assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.

Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly.

It is Time to Change attitudes to mental health, and a good place to start is to realise that it’s Time to Change how the media approach the subject. If you would like to complain about inappropriate reporting of mental health issues in the media then please follow the link here.

5 Responses to “It’s Time to Change: Don’t Demonize Depression!”

  1. John O'Connor Says:

    Peter,

    Thank you for the well argued article.
    Like you I also have issues and have successfully received treatment for quite a while. I’m also aware of some other colleagues at my work with symptoms that are a lot more debilitating than mine. Would say that I’m fortunate that in general our employer is relatively understanding of the issues (even if the job itself can be more stressful at times than it should be).

    Its horric what happened here, but hopefully some good will come out of it with a better undstanding of the various types of depression/anxiety and approaches to deal with it.

    John

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Perhaps more relevant: It appears that a physician had certified him as too sick to work for (at least) this particular day on an official form which is normally used to excuse an absence from work and collect sick pay. This form was found, mutilated, at his home. Whether this illness was related to his depression, but it really doesn’t matter: anyone officially certified as too ill to work should not be flying an airplane. It thus seems that not only did he know he should not be flying on this day, but also that he deliberately flew anyway.

    I think it is a good idea for pilots to have routine obligatory psychological tests, just as they are required to have regular physical tests. It’s probably true that a pilot seeking psychological and/or psychiatric help of his own accord might put himself at risk of losing his job, so obligatory tests for all would remove this stigma.

    • telescoper Says:

      Perhaps there should be a mechanism for a physician to inform the employer directly that the person is not fit for work.

      When I was ill I was signed off for three months by the doctor, but returned long before that period was up. I probably shouldn’t have done that, but I wasn’t putting anyone at significant risk, unlike this case. The main reason for going back early was that I wanted to try to feel useful again. I was also getting help provided by my employer while I was getting back to work. I t

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “Perhaps there should be a mechanism for a physician to inform the employer directly that the person is not fit for work.”

        I agree, but in many places this would be impossible to implement because it would be seen as a violation of privacy. Physicians (and lawyers etc) are normally not required to divulge information due to confidentiality even if it is potentially useful, because privacy concerns are deemed more important.

        This whole issue varies from country to country, of course. Some places have no ID cards, or there is opposition against them, for similar reasons; in others, individual income is a matter of public record. In this area, it is literally the case that what is illegal in one country is required by law in another.

        This could also backfire, of course; if patients new that such information could potentially find its way to the employer, they might not consult a physician when otherwise they would. Like deciding whether the risk of terrorists from outside the cockpit or a suicidal pilot is a bigger risk, what is good in one case might be bad in another and it is not always clear which is the bigger risk.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I know that if a teacher in a State school is signed off sick then he or she must not come to work because various conditions of insurance then fail to be satisfied.

      I am unconvinced that psychological tests for pilots would systematically disclose much. More revealing is how they react to emergencies that are deliberately thrown at them in simulators, which regularly include scenarios that inevitably lead to crashes.

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