THE BLOG

The Germanwings Tragedy, Depression and Stigma

04/02/2015 08:45 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

The National Alliance on Mental Illness has shared the grief of the rest of the world over the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525. We extend our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in this senseless tragedy.

As often happens in tragedies, information emerges first through an immediate frenzy of reporting in news media and then through more careful analysis. It is always best not to speculate on causes but to wait until all facts are confirmed and assessed.

In this case, as news cycles have progressed, we've been told that the co-pilot who crashed the plane had some history of depression. Most recently, a German prosecutor has reported that he had "received psychotherapy for an extended period of time, during which suicidal tendencies had been noted," while the airline has reported that in 2009 he disclosed to them a previous episode of severe depression. Treatment apparently occurred before he received his pilot's license.

He also apparently was being seen for one or more other medical issues. How relevant those factors actually are remains to be seen.

We know that by crashing the plane, the co-pilot killed himself, along with 149 other people.

We know that most suicides involve mental illness.

In the United States, approximately 40,000 people die from suicide each year. Obviously, we are falling far too short in suicide prevention.

Typically, suicide involves a struggle between a person and his or her own psychological problem. Murder-suicides are very rare. Murder-suicides conducted by commercial airline pilots are even rarer -- extremely rare -- although that of course is no consolation to the victims of Flight 9525, their families and friends.

People living with mental illness are rarely violent. Usually, mental illness is only one factor, among several, if not many, that set the stage for violent tragedies.

In the case of Flight 9525's co-pilot, the fact is that we don't know his full history yet. We may never know every relevant fact. His precise history of depression, whatever it may have been, may ultimately be seen as unimportant compared to other issues in his life.

Please keep that point in mind as the global conversation now turns to whether anyone who experiences mental illness should be allowed to serve in certain occupations or professions. Mental illness is treatable. People do recover.

Senseless tragedies must not be allowed to resurrect or perpetuate stigmatizing stereotypes that associate anyone with a history of mental illness with a propensity for violence. It will be an additional tragedy if the crash of Flight 9525 leads to "witch hunts" in which people who have sought help for mental illness become unfairly discriminated against.

Sixteen million American adults -- almost 7 percent of the population -- had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. When depressive symptoms occur, people need to see a doctor for a comprehensive examination. Underlying medical issues that can mimic a depressive episode, side effects from medications or any other medical causes must first be ruled out, before a treatment plan is chosen.

As a society, we need to create a cultural environment in which people are encouraged to seek help when they need it -- regardless of whether it is a mental illness or any other illness. No one should have to hide out of fear of negative consequences or reprisals such as loss of employment or social ridicule.

We want a society that affirms the worth of every individual -- the same kind of affirmation that causes us to mourn the loss of so many precious lives on Flight 9525.

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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.