Why We Must Not Fear Depression in the Wake of the Germanwings Tragedy

04/01/2015 11:46 am ET | Updated May 29, 2015

In the wake of the Germanwings crash, questions abound about what happened, what was going through the mind of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, what his motivation was, and how to prevent another such tragedy. It's normal to hypothesize why this happened. Doing so is an effort to provide certainty in the midst of uncertainty. It's an attempt to calm our fears and explain an unthinkable tragedy. Laypeople and experts have weighed in. I myself appeared on CNN this past week talking about it. I stressed several points that are important for people to bear in mind as they try to process this tragedy and look at circumstances that may have led to it. I purposely withheld sharing my theories though about what may have happened because I felt that would have been premature and irresponsible.

Here's what's important to keep in mind at this point:

We must not jump to conclusions. We do not know what happened and we certainly don't know what was going through the mind of Andreas Lubitz. A psychological autopsy will be conducted in an attempt to understand his mindset prior to the incident. His personal affects, electronic communication records, and other items will be examined looking for any clues. Medical records will be obtained and people who knew him will continue to be interviewed. This includes talking to people who were in his life, trying to gain information about his mindset and behaviors to glean any information that might shed some light on motivation or contributing factors. Erroneously reaching conclusions about his mental state can lead to more problems, including stigmatization of mental illnesses, so we must resist that urge.

The media has reported that Lubitz was depressed and sought treatment. If indeed this is true, people need to understand that depression does not usually lead to mass murder and homicide. In fact, homicidal people usually show features of a personality disorder or psychosis, not a mood disorder such as depression. The hallmarks of depression are feeling sad, guilty, isolating or withdrawing from people, difficulty concentrating, low energy, either over or under eating (and a resulting change in weight), reduced interest in participating in activities that were once enjoyable, medicating through the use of drugs or alcohol, feeling hopeless or helpless, anger or irritability, over or under sleeping, and if it is severe enough, suicidal. Again, homicidal and mass murder tendencies are not usually seen in depressed people.

Depression is a common disorder with occurrence rates ranging from 6-10 percent in the United States. It's important to keep in mind that these are people who have been formally diagnosed. My guess is that the number is much higher. Many people are undiagnosed and resist seeking help -- largely due to the stigma. Depressed people are our friends, family members, people we interact with everyday including store clerks, business associates and colleagues. Depressed people are also political figures, actors, musicians, and yes, even pilots. These people do not pose a danger or threat to society and do not deliberately inflict harm. These are highly productive members of society and people we love.

Do your part to not perpetuate myths and the stigma around mental illnesses. Do not link an isolated tragedy to all mental health issues. Doing so would be irresponsible and will only lead people to fear what they don't know rather than seek to understand it. Linking this tragic event with that of all mental illnesses will make it even more difficult for people to disclose their problems, seek help, and work towards getting better. Media outlets and talking heads should use this opportunity to highlight the role that stress plays in people's lives and the need for support and help. In the wake of this horrific tragedy, let's see it as an opportunity to de-stigmatize mental health and to have a productive and educational conversation about what it actually is, and what it isn't.

For more information about mental health check out my book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.


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.

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