Mental illness needs support, not scrutiny, after crash

Editor’s Note: This article discusses suicide related to the Germanwings Flight 2525 crash.

 

As is the case for most of the decade’s globalized tragedies, mass paranoia and toxic scapegoat tactics are emerging as the gravest repercussions of the March 24 Germanwings Flight 2525 crash. Tabloids, investigators, prosecutors, and regulatory boards are now publicly delving into the history of the plane’s co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who locked himself in the aircraft’s cockpit and steered it directly into the French Alps, killing the 150 passengers and crew members on board. In light of their efforts, the media have exposed Lubitz to be a suicidal time-bomb, a manic, depressed threat to society who somehow managed to conceal his mental state at the time of the incident from Germanwings’ parent company, Lufthansa.

It was discovered in the days following the tragedy that Lubitz had been attending psychotherapy to treat bouts of suicidal thoughts, and that on March 24 he was not cleared by his neurologists to go in to work. Of course, hysteria ensues. How can depression, the “silent killer,” be wrestled from the private sphere and how can it be dealt with? What precautions should be taken to monitor mental illness in the workplace with greater care? Fueling this panic, former head of safety and security at United Airlines Bill Yantiss lately made the following statement in regards to the crash: “There probably are [members of] flight crews out there with the same mental state. The risk is out there, it could certainly happen again.”

These words, “it could certainly happen again,” are the foreboding cries of an imminent witch hunt. Yantiss and all others who are pointing fingers at mental illness as the root of mass murder are unwittingly stamping the majority of those diagnosed with depression or suicidal tendencies with a glaring warning label when, in reality, the percentage of individuals being treated for depression at risk of committing murder-suicide is restricted to an extremely small percentage and does not represent the behavior or inclinations of the community as a whole.

According to Director of Forensic Psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University Dr. James L. Knoll, those liable to commit murder-suicide possess an important combination of idiosyncrasies that differentiate them from common depression cases; he states that becoming hyper-vigilant about mental illness in general is “a low-yield dead end,” and that “There’s something fundamentally different here, aside and apart from the depression, and that’s where we need to look.”

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Stone lists “massive disgruntlement” and “paranoid traits” such as displays of rage, grandiosity, vengeance, narcissism or amorality as key determinants of a mass murderer. While the inner workings of Lubitz’s mind are likely to remain a mystery, the fragmented clues of his pre-crash mentality hint that his case was not one of typical depression, but that it mirrored many of the factors that have been found to play into the psychotic state of suicide-murderers. A flight attendant claiming to be Lubitz’s former girlfriend, for instance, said in an interview that he spoke of doing “…something that will change the entire system and everyone will know my name and remember it,” implying a delusional need for fame and notoriety, and, in line with Dr. Stone’s theory on the role of disgruntlement in mass murders, that he was often consumed by fits of anger in which he would rattle off grievances about his job. Clearly, Lubitz was not suffering simply depression, but a dangerous strain of the mental illness that, though threatening to the public sphere, must not be conflated with the larger and more widespread diagnosis.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) estimates that approximately seven percent of the adult population, aged 18 and older, is diagnosed with depression each year—nearly 15 million Americans are affected by the disease, and a whopping 40 million are affected by a broader range of anxieties and mental illnesses. However, the ADAA records that only about one-third of these individuals receive treatment. With the villainization of depression as a large-scale public safety issue, health officials are beginning to worry that reactionary steps taken in the wake of the Flight 9525 crash will only strengthen the negative stigma surrounding mental illness, encouraging those in need of help to stay silent about their symptoms, and similarly, preventing them from willingly disclosing their condition to their employers. director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ron Honberg noted that, “These kind of stories reinforce the anxiety, the doubts, the concerns that people have that ‘I have to keep my symptoms concealed at all costs,’ and that doesn’t benefit anyone.”

Laws implemented in New York and Connecticut after the shootings in Newtown that allow therapists greater lenience in breaching doctor-patient confidentiality indicate that similar regulatory codes may be established with the airlines in Germany, where companies do not have explicit access to employees’ medical records. This, of course, raises debate on the prioritization of a patient’s right to privacy- at what level does it become necessary to unveil a worker’s mental condition or health struggles for the sake of the public good? In the field of aviation, the question is complicated by the fact that hundreds of lives are being entrusted to the care of a single or small set of professionals, and the worst-case scenario, as enacted by Andreas Lubitz on March 24, has such a high risk factor that despite the statistically tiny probability of a similar event occurring again in the near future, fear is driving officials and civilians alike to call for drastic change.

In the midst of the feverish search for answers and solutions, rationality remains crucial in addressing the problem of mental illness and corporate responsibility. While it is imperative for a company to be made aware of any serious threats to the public or its employees, the correct way to approach increased monitoring of depression or anxiety is not to equate the actions of psychotic mass murderers with the commonplace case of depression; the harmful stigmatization of these disorders must be eased from our society’s vocabulary, or else in the coming years will see an even higher number of patients resisting much-needed treatment and an increased ostracization of mentally ill people.

 

—Emily Sayer ’18 is a student at Vassar College.

One Comment

  1. —-the negative stigma surrounding mental illness

    You are not the first to claim a “stigma”, and it is highly unlikely you will be the last. Who directs one and against whom varies with time and place. Rape/stigma was once a prime target. It was repeated mindlessly.

    You have chosen another, or did you? Was it chosen for you, as stigma/rape was chosen for generations before you? It is likely the later.

    —-an increased ostracization of mentally ill people

    You appear not to know us. We earn to the millions, hold every university degree, and every professional, white, and blue collar job.

    Are you actually suggesting that students with mental illnesses at Vassar are ostracized?

    Harold A. Maio, retired mental health editor
    [email protected]

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