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Is It Right to Blame Depression for the Crash of Germanwings Flight 9525?

04/08/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015
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Horrified, the world recently witnessed the tragic crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 and the death of all 150 people aboard. What was probably most tragic about this incident was that it was potentially preventable.

The reporting on this incident has focused on the mental health history of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. Apparently, at some point in the past, he received psychological treatment for severe depression and suicidal tendencies. The strong implication, therefore, is that the downing of this flight was a suicide attempt motivated by that depression. While this very well may turn out to be the case, the media has been extremely quick to trumpet this aspect of the story, even though investigators have not yet concluded that depression was in fact the cause of the crash.

For instance, there are also reports that he suffered from physical illnesses, including loss of eyesight, and had significant fear of losing his permission to fly due to these problems. Although it appears that the crash was intentional, we may not know for some time what the actual cause was. Nonetheless, countless media outlets have speculated strongly that mental illness -- particularly depression -- may have been the cause of the tragedy.

Here's why this troubling: It highlights the media's -- and by extension our society's -- tendency to view mental health difficulties as permanent. It has been widely reported, for instance, that Mr. Lubitz had been treated for suicidal tendencies at some point before he received his pilot's license. This was quite some time ago. The implication is that such a difficulty, once experienced or diagnosed, does not or cannot go away.

This cynical trend in media reporting appears to be going largely unchallenged. It is a curious trend in our society that we have grown so cynical that we believe people cannot change, that people cannot be resilient. This was noted by Malcolm Gladwell in an article that he wrote for the New Yorker in 2004.

Reflecting on the controversy surrounding research by psychologists Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman and Philip Tromovitch, demonstrating that children often recover from abuse, Gladwell wrote, "All Rind and his colleagues were saying is that sexual abuse is often something that people eventually can get over, and one of the reasons that the Rind study was so unacceptable is that we no longer think that traumatic experiences are things we can get over."

This doesn't seem to have changed much in the intervening decade.

It is notable, however, that psychological research runs counter to this trend toward cynicism. Scores of studies show that the vast majority of people with the vast majority of mental illnesses recover when they are treated with appropriate psychotherapy and/or medication. Although the numbers vary from condition to condition, overall people treated with appropriate therapy improve the majority of the time. The research is so clear, that it is not absurd to use the word "cure" to describe a good number of these outcomes. This isn't to say that every single mental illness in every single case is curable, of course. But the notion that most mental illnesses are permanent certainly isn't true.

The problem is that the erroneous belief that mental illnesses are permanent increases the degree to which we stigmatize such conditions. For decades, researchers in the fields of Social Psychology and Sociology have investigated the factors that predispose people to stigmatize and discriminate against others. One of these factors appears to be the belief that a condition is permanent. Writing in 2013 in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, sociologist Bernice Pescosolido, points out an intriguing fact. The relatively recent realization that many mental disorders are attributable, at least in part, to biological factors has "engendered greater pessimism on treatment efficacy ... Genetic attribution was often significantly associated with higher levels of stigma, perhaps because the mark conveyed a sense of permanence ..."

Such stigma and fear of discrimination has real effects on people suffering from mental health conditions. For one thing, it can understandably make them reluctant to admit their conditions and, ultimately, to seek help. This is exactly the opposite of what we, as a society, want. Given the fact that most mental illnesses are treatable with appropriate psychotherapy, we should want to find ways of helping people to access that therapy. By falsely believing that mental illnesses are permanent, we are creating conditions under which people will not seek help, the results of which, ironically, could be longer-lasting symptoms.

Ultimately, it is not necessarily the mental illness that creates danger. It is the stigma that we are so quick to heap on sufferers.

We may never know with certainty the degree to which depression played a role in the tragic loss of those aboard Germanwings Flight 9525. It indeed may have. But whether or not it did, it is interesting to note how quickly people assumed that it did, even before all the facts were in. We should all ask ourselves why we have been so quick to jump to this conclusion. And, why we've become so cynical about people's ability to be resilient.

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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.

David B. Feldman is an Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University and the co-author of Supersurivors: The Surprising Link between Suffering and Success.