The Way We Talk About Mental Illness After Tragedies Like Germanwings Needs To Change

03/27/2015 05:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2015
JEFF PACHOUD via Getty Images

Media reports erupted today with news that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz may have been suffering from depression or another mental illness when he crashed the aircraft in the French Alps, most likely killing 150 people, including himself.

While headlines like U.K. tabloid The Sun's "Madman In Cockpit" are hardly surprising, such sensational links between mental illness and horrific tragedies can have an undesired outcome when it comes to stigma.

Here are five ways to have a more productive conversation about the complex interplay between mental health, violence and tragedies such as this one.

1. Depression doesn't cause violence.

The public's perception of mental illness -- which is largely fueled by movies featuring mentally-ill individuals turned violent and news headlines that thread mental illness into every story about mass killings -- needs a readjustment.

People who are depressed are not likely to be violent. If they were, we'd all be in trouble: One in five of us will experience a serious mental health issue at some point in our lives, but only 3-5 percent of violent acts in the United States are committed by an individual with serious mental illness -- a tiny fraction of the country's violent crimes.

"If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent," said Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, an expert on mental health and violence and a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, in a recent interview with Pacific Standard.

What makes this misrepresentation even worse is that individuals who suffer from mental illness are 10 times more likely than the general population to be the victim of violent crime, an under-reported issue that is overlooked in favor of misleading depictions of depression as a violent condition.

2. Suggesting mental illness as the root cause of violence stigmatizes those who live healthy, full lives with conditions like depression.

Approximately one in four U.S. adults in a given year suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, making it highly likely that you know someone who has been affected. However, only 25 percent of people who have mental health symptoms feel that others are understanding toward people with mental illness, according to the CDC. And it's no secret why.

Public diagnoses, such as the discussion surrounding the Germanwings tragedy, plague every single mental illness sufferer. The truth is, the majority of those who have a mental health problem live healthy and complete lives. They are reliable at work and beloved by their families. Yet many people categorize them as "abnormal" because of unsubstantiated scapegoating during these types of tragedies, which can have a real impact: Studies have shown that knowledge, culture and social networks can influence the relationship between stigma and access to care. When people feel stigma, they are less likely to seek the help they need.

The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are law-abiding, responsible and productive citizens.

3. Mental illness disclosure policies can push people further into the closet.

Lubitz was seeking treatment for an undisclosed medical condition that he kept from his employers, alleged the public prosecutor’s office in Dusseldorf, Germany. They didn’t say whether it was a mental or physical condition, but investigators did note that they found a torn-up doctor’s note declaring him unfit for work, reported CNN. Employees in Germany are expected to tell their employers immediately if they can’t work due to an illness, according to Reuters, and that doctor's note would have kept Lubitz grounded and out of the cockpit.

Lubitz had passed special health screenings, including psychological ones, before he was hired on as a co-pilot in 2013, reported ABC News, but unlike in the U.S. airline industry, annual mental health screenings for pilots aren’t a requirement in Germany. Additionally, per Federal Aviation Administration rules, U.S. pilots must disclose all “existing physical and psychological conditions and medications” or face fines of up to $250,000 if they’re found to have delivered false information. That means if he were an American pilot, Lubitz would have been obligated to disclose any and all conditions, as well as the medicines he was taking, in order to remain in good standing at his job. Because of these and other policies, U.S. airline standards are regarded as the strictest and safest around the world (though not without their flaws).

But just because the FAA requires full health disclosure to an FAA-designated Aviation Medical Examiner doesn’t mean that pilots may feel completely safe disclosing their conditions, according to Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs at National Alliance On Mental Illness.

“If a person feels that it’s safe to disclose, and that they’ll have an opportunity to get help -- that there won’t automatically be adverse consequences like being prohibited from ever flying again -- then they’re going to be more likely to disclose [a mental illness],” said Honberg. “But I think historically pilots have known that if they admitted it, they’d never be able to fly again.”

Generally speaking, barring industries where a person may be responsible for public safety (like a pilot or a police officer), one is not obligated to disclose any of this information to his or her employers in the U.S. Just as people don’t have to tell their bosses about diabetes, cardiac disease or HIV diagnoses, employees can’t be forced to discuss their mental health history beyond anything that may interfere with a person’s function at the job, explained Honberg. And employers can’t ask job candidates about their medical records or medical history except to ask about whether something might impact a person’s functional limitation in a job.

“It has to be focused on if they’re capable of doing the job,” said Honberg. “Are there physical or mental health factors that may preclude them from being able to do that?”

The FAA does not track rates of dismissal for pilots who disclose mental illnesses versus other conditions, or the number of pilots who continue to fly after disclosing a mental illness. But until we have all the facts about Lubitz’s situation, it’s important to hold off on any policy changes that might attempt to close up perceived loopholes, he said.

“It’s really important to have all the facts, particularly before we decide on any policies to prevent anything like this from happening again,” said Honberg. “We want to somehow create a proper balance that on the one hand protects public safety and on the other hand encourages people to seek help if needed."

4. The conversation surrounding mental illness and mass violence reveals our ingrained ethnic and racial biases.

Lubitz allegedly committed mass murder and, as many people have pointed out, it is troubling that his acts are ascribed to mental illness when, if he were Muslim or a racial minority, he would likely be assigned a two-dimensional ideological motivation.

Yes, this is a disturbing expression of the dominant culture's racial pathologies, but rather than trying to correct the balance by referring to white mass murderers in an un-nuanced fashion, as some have suggested, perhaps the more productive action would be to view the underlying mental health problems among everyone who carries out mass violence -- regardless of race, religion or country of origin.

Again, most people with mental illness will never be violent, but those who are violent often do have an underlying trauma or condition. "More and more evidence from around the world is suggesting that many of the terrorists wreaking havoc both in America and abroad are racked with emotional and mental trauma themselves," wrote Cord Jefferson in The Nation in 2012:

To be clear, nobody’s saying that all -- or even most -- terrorists aren’t cold, bloodthirsty killers who know exactly what they’re doing every time they commit another heinous act. But there is reason to believe that a significant number of foreign and domestic terrorists are suffering from the exact same mental distresses by which we quickly assume men like James Holmes and boys like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, to be afflicted.

Indeed, Jefferson went on to note a study of Palestinian men who had signed up to be suicide bombers that found 40 percent showed suicidal tendencies by traditional mental health measures, and recruiters admitted looking for "sad guys" to carry out mass violence.

More generally, the way we view mental health and race has a lasting public health impact: Minority and immigrant communities in the U.S. are dramatically underserved, according to a government report (and corroborated by the American Psychological Association). One major problem, according to the Surgeon General's report, is misdiagnosis or lack of diagnosis due to cultural biases on the part of mental health practitioners.

5. We may never have a diagnosis, and we have to be okay with that.

When tragedy strikes, it's a natural human inclination to want an explanation to help get closure for our feelings of anger and loss. When such information is unavailable to us, our grief remains in this limbo of sorts -- or worse, we search for our own answer to help us move forward.

In a recent article for The New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch aptly explained this phenomenon:

To be told that a scene of mass death is the result of an accident of terrorism is to be given not only an explanation of the cause but also an idea of how to reckon with the consequence -- through justice, or revenge, or measures meant to prevent a recurrence.

According to CNN, a physician did declare Lubitz unfit to work the day of the flight, and instead of sharing that information with Germanwings, Lubitz disposed of the note and boarded the plane. But even in light of such information, it's highly unlikely that we will ever know exactly what was going on in the mind of this pilot, and it is far from our place to speak as though we have a definitive answer.

In the words of Gourevitch, we are left with a sense of "cosmic meaninglessness and bewilderment" when horrific events such as this one occur, and while that is one of the toughest collections of emotions to grapple with, there is no credible alternative in cases like this.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Earlier on HuffPost:

7 Helpful Websites For Coping With Depression
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