Psychology and the Germanwings crash
Picture credit: Sebastien Mortier
On 24 March, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps, instantly killing all 150 passengers and crew. As it was revealed that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz caused the crash intentionally after locking his fellow pilot out of the cockpit, mental health issues quickly took centre stage. Tabloid newspapers reacted with brash headlines full of blame and bile, suggesting a causal link between depression and being a danger to the lives of others. ‘Why on earth was he allowed to fly?’, asked the front page of the Daily Mail. But in amongst the heat and intolerance, was there any light and genuine insight to be found?
Despite an increasing public discussion around mental health and stigma, a large-scale disaster still seems to bring out the ugly side of the media, with the complexities of mental illness glossed over. A candid column published in The Guardian by novelist and journalist Matt Haig outlines examples of this stigma as well as his own struggles with depression. He points to several tabloid newspapers who jumped the gun in linking depression with violence and murder – before the full facts were even available. He wrote: ‘Even when it did emerge that Lubitz had a history of depression and had been to see a doctor, does this mean all people with depression are an automatic risk to public safety? You’d think so, given some of the media output that followed.’
Haig makes the point that outlandish headlines from certain newspapers create a culture of silence, in which people feel a need to hide their illnesses. He added: ‘For instance, imagine if you were a pilot who was suddenly suffering a bout of depression and you wanted to explain this to your employers and ask for some time off to recover. I imagine that such an admission would be harder to make today than it would have been before this press coverage.’
As mentioned by Haig, some tabloid newspapers made the suggestion that depressed pilots should not be allowed to fly at all. In an interview with The Observer Professor Simon Wessely (President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists) pointed out that pilots with acute depression are not, in fact, allowed to fly. The report states that pilots are allowed to fly for commercial airlines a minimum of four weeks after symptoms of depression have been resolved or when they are free of symptoms but taking approved antidepressants.
Professor Wessely told the newspaper that he had dealt with pilots who suffered with depression, that once recovered they are still monitored, and that two of those he worked with went on to have very successful careers. He continued: ‘Why should they not? What does cause trouble is saying that if you have ever had a history of depression then you should not be allowed to do whatever. That is wrong, as much as saying that people with a history of broken arms shouldn’t be allowed to do something.’
He added: ‘We are all concerned. There are two reasons why: there isn’t a link between depression and aggressive suicide, if that is what this is. There isn’t normally such a link. And second, because of some of the ridiculous things that are said. Piers Morgan said that it was a disgrace that a man with acute depression was allowed to fly. Well, they are not allowed to fly. There may have been some fault in the procedures that let this happen, but they are not allowed to fly.’
Ruby Wax, the TV personality who has psychotherapy and counselling training, also added her voice to anti-stigma commentators. Wax, who has spoken openly about her own depression, wrote in the Huffington Post that she had been on Sydney’s version of Question Time, Q and A, and was asked whether all pilots should be examined for mental illness. She wrote: ‘That's a question that could bring the stigma right back into fashion to the point of burning us at the stake again.’ Wax went on to criticise the relative lack of research into cures for mental illness compared to physical illness.
Chartered Psychologist Professor Robert Bor, told The Psychologist that in his 25 years in the aviation sector he had become familiar with the mental health issues which affect pilots, as well as being involved with pilot selections and mental health assessments. Bor said a question which would be on all of our minds was whether such an event could have been prevented. ‘Theoretically, yes, if every pilot was subjected to an extensive psychological assessment. But of course the real answer is no, because it is inconceivable that such assessments could ever be undertaken on a mass scale.’
Professor Bor said that regulatory authorities would now closely address the immediate antecedents to pilots acting in destructive ways through acting out on suicidal and homicidal thoughts. He added: ‘The regulatory authorities will probably increase psychological testing for air crew, although it is unlikely that this will help to identify those at risk of unusual and extreme acts of violence. But these measures, as every therapist will understand, will not help us to access and understand the psyche of a pilot and most especially one who is committed to acts of such destruction.’ In hindsight, he added, it was doubtful that this outcome could have been predicted: ‘Regulatory authorities will come to terms with something many of us have always known: there are individuals who wrestle with destructive forces in their minds and some – thankfully very few – have access to jobs and responsibilities that can wreak havoc unless they are identified and selected out of their roles, or at the very least helped to manage their destructive urges.’
It was striking how little of the coverage dealt with this pertinent issue – murder-suicide. One article which did was by Erica Goode in the New York Times. She wrote that ‘studies over the last decades have begun to piece together characteristics that many who carry out such violence seem to share, among them a towering narcissism, a strong sense of grievance and a desire for infamy.’ Adam Lankford, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, commented that in his research on mass killers who also took their own lives, he has found ‘a significant number of cases where they mention a desire for fame, glory or attention as a motive.’ Depression is not the key: ‘People want an easily graspable handle to help understand this, to blame something or scapegoat,’ commented Dr James L. Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. To zero in on depression is ‘a low-yield dead end,’ he said, adding, ‘There’s something fundamentally different here, aside and apart from the depression, and that’s where we need to look.’
The New York Times piece goes on to discuss a study of aircraft suicides by Dr Hatters Friedman and Dr Chris Kenedi, a psychiatrist at Duke. ‘Not all of them had a history of mental illness,’ Dr Hatters Friedman said of the pilots. ‘What keeps coming up is family stresses, relationship stress, work stresses, financial stresses.’ In several cases, Goode notes, ‘the pilots, all men, seemed to be acting on grievances.’
The British Psychological Society released a statement in the aftermath of the crash, with President Elect Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, referring to the calls for psychological testing and monitoring of pilots following the crash. He added: ‘Many people associated with the industry have said that lessons need to be learned and, of course, this could help the bereaved families feel that steps are being taken to prevent these types of rare incidents happening in the future. The British Psychological Society is ready and willing to participate in any of those discussions to give expert support as appropriate. For example, helping to consider whether a greater focus on psychological testing and psychological wellbeing is desirable.’
Professor Dorothy Miell, President of the Society, added to this statement by asking that the debate in the media not add to the stigma surrounding mental health problems by making assumptions about the risks posed by those who experience depression. Will those who write the headlines listen, or will the next human disaster bring the same regrettable focus?
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