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Depression is still stigmatized

Carla BleikerMarch 28, 2015

In a desperate attempt to make sense of the Germanwings plane crash, many people are focusing on the co-pilot's mental health. But drawing conclusions between depression and violence is misleading and simply wrong.

Germanwings crash memorial in Le Vernet. (Photo: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
Image: Reuters/E. Gaillard

The information that investigators gained from the recovered black box stunned airline officials, politicians and people around the world: the co-pilot of Germanwings flight 4U 9525 appears to have crashed the plane into a range of the French Alps intentionally, killing himself and 149 other people in the process.

Angela Merkel said the event went "beyond anything we could ever imagine" and Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said that he and his colleagues were "even more shocked than before" when they got the information, "if that is at all possible."

In trying to make sense of the event, many media outlets around the world seem to have resorted to a "quick fix" explanation: co-pilot Andreas Lubitz crashed the plane because he suffered from depression.

But investigators have yet to present substantial proof for the 27-year-old's alleged mental illness. And even if it's true, equating mental illness with violence is sensationalist and casts people suffering from depression in the wrong light.

Rampant speculation in the media

France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls set the tone for tabloid media when he said that everything pointed to an act that was "crazy, criminal, suicidal," according to news agency Agence France-Press.

Media outlets have been quick to pick up on this. The Bild Zeitung, Germany's largest and notorious tabloid, called Lubitz "the amok-pilot," while British paper The Daily Mail had a headline "Mass-killer co-pilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings plane had to STOP training because he was suffering depression and 'burn-out.'"

People who have referred to themselves as Lubitz's friends and acquaintances have told the media that he had been suffering from burn-out; Bild wrote about a "possible psychological illness," citing six-year-old medical records from Germany's Federal Aviation Office. More reputable news outlets have also reported that investigators have found clues for mental illness when searching his apartment in Düsseldorf. Lufthansa CEO Spohr said Lubitz took a break in his training in 2009 that lasted for a matter of months.

But all we know so far is that investigators have found a doctor's note that said he had been ill on the day of the tragic flight and another, older, torn up sick note, indicating that the co-pilot had possibly been hiding some sort of illness from his employers.

Depressed people aren't dangerous

It looks likely that Lubitz had depression at one point. But experts find the way that many media outlets are jumping on this fact reproachable.

"It's kind of natural to say 'this just has to be deeply crazy'," Jeffrey Swanson, a psychiatry professor at Duke University told US news magazine The Atlantic. But, he added that being generally suspicious of people with mental health issues was absurd: "The vast majority of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression are not likely to do anything violent and never will."

Woman with her head in her hand. (Photo: Artem Furman)
People with depression don't usually hurt othersImage: Artem Furman - Fotolia.com

A Swedish study published in the psychiatry journal The Lancet found that 3.7 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women committed a violent crime after being identified as clinically depressed. In the general population, these numbers were at 1.2 percent for men and 0.2 percent for women. The researchers had looked at the medical records and conviction rates of roughly 47,000 people diagnosed with depression over a period of about three years and compared them with the records of more than 898,000 people without diagnosed depression, British newspaper The Guardian reported in February 2015.

'Don't rush to judgement'

According to these numbers, there seems to be a minimal increase in violent actions in depressed people. And yet there is still a stigma attached to mental illness in today's society. Many worry that the Germanwings crash could make it worse.

"We should be careful not to rush to judgement," Sir Simon Wessely, president of Great Britain's Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the BBC. "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."

That's also an opinion many users on social media networks such as Twitter share. They have voiced their distaste about the media coverage of Lubitz's alleged depression and the stigma that tabloids are perpetuating.

Aside from the attempt to increase sales, this focus on Lubitz's alleged mental illness could also be an attempt to understand the unfathomable: why would anyone do such a thing? But oversimplifying depression and generalizing all those suffering from a mental illness as dangerous doesn't help anyone.