THE BLOG

Claims About Andreas Lubitz's Mental Health Further Stigmatize Mental Illnesses

03/30/2015 01:32 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

As one would expect, there has been a lot of press over last week's tragic crash of the Germanwings jetliner. Most media outlets are reporting the facts, but then there are some, like UK's The Sun, who choose to sensationalize and further the devastating effects of stigma with their front page headliner, "Crazed rookie pilot murdered 149, Madman in the Cockpit."

No one at this point knows the reason that Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed the plane into the French Alps killing himself and all 149 people on board. The speculation though, is that he had a mental illness, possibly depression and that perhaps it was an act of cowardly suicide.

I don't know if that is the case or not, and it's possible that Lubitz's intentions will never be known, but it is irresponsible to link the crash to his mental health.

Stigma is a huge obstacle for help-seeking behavior. Stigmatizing others has been around for centuries. Criminals, slaves, or traitors had a tattoo mark that was cut or burned into their skin in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. Separating and judging groups by color, religion, sexual orientation, medical conditions (e.g. leprosy), and mental ability functions to establish a "us' versus "them." Discrimination, rejection, intolerance, inequality and exclusion all result from being stigmatized.

Those with mental illnesses are unfortunately a target for stigma. The effects of stigma are especially painful and damaging to one's self-esteem. It leaves people with mental illnesses feeling like outcasts from society. Whether the perceived stigma is real or not, it is the subjective interpretation that affects the person's feelings of belonging.

Despite the alarming number of people affected with a mental illness, statistics show that only about half of these individuals seek treatment.

According to Dr. Thomas Insel of the NIMH, psychiatry is the only part of medicine -- where there is actually greater stigma for receiving treatment for these illnesses than for having them.

While there are many reasons for the discrepancies in help-seeking behavior, stigma can prevent people from receiving the help that they need. This barrier to seeking help can have a ripple effect. Some individuals may attempt to handle their issue through drugs or alcohol, both of which only exacerbate the illness by increasing the feelings of sadness and despondency. Left untreated, the illness only gets worse, causing more isolation, emotional pain, and distress. In some cases, suicide may seem to be the only option.

Journalists in all forms of media play an increasingly important role in shaping public understanding and debate about health care issues. The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism program, created in 1996, is part of a national effort to reduce negative attitudes and discrimination associated with mental illnesses. The fellowship program aims to increase accurate reporting on mental health issues; help journalists produce high-quality work that reflects an understanding of mental health issues through exposure to well-established resources in the field; and develop a cadre of better-informed print and electronic journalists.

So, what can we do to combat stigma? SAMHSA has a "4-P's" approach: Praise, Protest, Personal Contact & Partnership.

Here are some specific do's and don't's:

  • Share your experience with mental disorder. Your story can convey to others that having a mental disorder is nothing to be embarrassed about.
  • Help people with mental disorder reenter society. Support their efforts to obtain housing and jobs.
  • Watch the language you use:
  • don't use generic labels: "retarded," "our mentally ill"
  • don't use psychiatric diagnoses as metaphors: "schizophrenic situation"
  • don't use offensive words: "psycho," "loony," "crazy," "wacko," "slow," "crackpot"
  • don't refer to a person as a diagnosis: "he's bipolar," instead say, "he has bipolar disorder"
  • Document stigma in the media whenever possible
  • The media also offers our best hope for eradicating stigma because of its power to educate and influence public opinion, so remember to thank journalists when they get it right.
  • Send letters, make phone calls, or e-mail the offending parties
  • Ask your local, regional, and national leaders to take a stand
  • Support efforts to actively expose stigma in the media
  • Educate yourself - the elimination of stigma begins with you
  • Volunteer, join an anti-stigma campaign

Mental health disorders affect everyone -- by talking about mental health we can dispel stereotypes, raise awareness and improve help seeking behaviors.

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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.