The Germanwings Tragedy And Mental Illness: This Is The Wrong Conversation

The Germanwings Tragedy And Mental Illness: This Is The Wrong Conversation

Mental illness is once more a topic of conversation, in the wake of Tuesday’s tragic crash of a Germanwings airliner in the Alps, and the revelation that the incident was due to the deliberate action of copilot Andreas Lubitz. While it is good we are actually talking about mental illness, something that is far too often hidden from public discourse, the conversation that we are having is, I submit, absolutely wrong.

Yes, Andreas Lubitz suffered from depression, and there is some evidence that he sought to conceal the extent of his mental illness from his employers. At the moment, that is about as much as we know. But the conversation is already taking an unpleasant turn, directly blaming Lubitz’s depression for his actions and wondering how he could ever have been allowed to fly a plane:

The disclosures will raise more questions for Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, as to how he was allowed to fly a passenger plane when he was known to suffer from depression – and to have suffered burnout and mental illness. Lawyers believe the families of victims could win up to £100 million in a joint action against Lufthansa and Germanwings, which had claimed Lubitz was ‘100 per cent fit to fly’ but then admitted he slipped through their safety net.  Under the 1999 Montreal Convention, airlines are liable to pay £105,000 for each death – but may be forced to pay more if they are shown to have been negligent. Lufthansa last night offered up to 50,000 euros in immediate financial assistance per passenger. The astonishment of the bereaved was summed up yesterday by Christian Driessens, from Belgium, whose brother Claude died in the crash.  He said: ‘Looking back, I slowly start to be angry. I don’t understand how a serious company can let a depressed man pilot a plane.

This, despite the fact that it is by no means clear that a simple line can be drawn between Lubitz’s mental illness and his ultimate actions. Details are still emerging. Depression may have only been one of Lubitz’s problems. And there is no evidence that any of his problems could have been detected, so that he might been barred from flying:

Most airlines include some psychological assessment, often using variations of common personality questionnaires such as the widely used “five factor inventory”. In simple terms, they are looking for people with well-rounded personalities. Many airlines also put candidate pilots through group exercises to pick out good team-workers and leaders. They will exclude people with a criminal record. One issue, however, is that pilots are not routinely subjected to psychological or psychiatric assessment. The awful truth is that even this would not be able to predict such a horrific act. If indeed this was the act of a psychopath, despite leaps and bounds in neuroscience, there is no screening tool, blood test or brain scan for psychopathy that is good enough.

It is deeply unfortunate that mental illness really only becomes part of the conversation in the wake of a tragedy. We talk about it in the wake of the Germanwings crash. Or in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. Our conversations about mental illness are purely reactive. We talk about it in the wake of death and violence, and worry about how we can prevent such an awful thing from ever happening again.

As I’ve said, this is entirely wrong. Mental illness is already horribly stigmatized, and these sorts of conversations only serve to increase that stigma. It leads people to see those with mental illness as ticking time bombs, potential perpetrators of violence. The reality, of course, is that those with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

But here’s the thing: the stigma attached to mental illness? Comes from the fact that it simply terrifies us. We don’t understand it. It’s something different and scary and it strikes without warning. But here’s the other thing: it isn’t different. Even the term “mental illness” is a misnomer, I would argue. While the exact mechanisms are still unclear, the data points to “mental” illness having physical causes. Brain scans can reveal signs of schizophrenia and depression. Even personality disorders, which are elusive and not amenable to treatment, may evidence in physical changes to the brain.

Mental illness is a misnomer. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses that produce symptoms that we classify as “mental.” And that is a last vestige of Cartesian dualism, the long since abandoned notion that the physical and mental worlds are fundamentally separate and distinct. That is just not the case. “Mental” illness is no different than physical illness, and we need to stop thinking of it as such. Thinking of it as different is what allows it to be stigmatized and keeps those who are suffering from speaking out and seeking help.

And today, in the wake of the Germanwings tragedy, we are having the wrong conversation about mental illness. If we focus on blaming this tragedy on Lubitz’s depression, on looking for ways to “prevent” the mentally ill from harming the public, we do nothing more than add to the already existing stigma. This helps no one, prevents nothing, and harms those who suffer from mental illness. This conversation needs to change.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons