Psychology and the Germanwings crash

Our journalist Ella Rhodes looks for light and insight in the media response.

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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Aviation Psychology, security in the skies, and pilots management in Civil Aviation in Europe

What we can learn from the tragic event of Germanwings Airbus 320? Certainly much, and the opportunity should not be overlooked nor missed!
In the management of pilots and commanders, the first crucial step is to choose and select the right people.
When, in 1916, the Italian psychologist and psychiatrist Agostino Gemelli was commissioned by the Supreme Command to deal with the selection of military pilots, in collaboration with one of the most known Italian champion pilots Francesco Baracca, he studied and observed the professional role of the military pilots. He himself wanted to experience it, and conducted an aircraft obtaining the license.
On this basis of knowing, Gemelli realized the importance of a strong psychological selection of the pilots, declaring that the only medical exams could not be enough to choose the better candidates. With this goal in mind, Gemelli founded the Laboratory of Psychophysiology.
A century has elapsed since then, but it does not seem that his teaching has been collected. Today, in the field of psychology applied to personnel assessment, we have three main methods of psychological assessment that should be used especially for positions of greater professional and/or managerial responsibility: (1) the in-depth, clinical-organizational individual interview, (2) the group methods - like Assessment Centers - and (3) a myriad of psychological tests, questionnaires and projective techniques.
In order to understand the candidate’s personality, and to evaluate and define the pilot profile, we must apply all three these methods, by using different examiners and clinical-organizational psychologists, integrating information and building a sufficiently reliable representation of the candidate’s personality as a whole. To realize this goal we need to carry out psychodiagnostic in-depth interviews lasting several hours of time, expand the range of questionnaires and psychological tests – for example not limited to the MMPI – using also the projective techniques, and applying the group assessment methods that can offer interesting information on a wide range of personal qualities (not only of relational sphere).
What must be avoided is relying on a single test (the MMPI or another else), performing the psychological interview only in rare cases and on the advice of the medical doctor, and completely ignoring the evaluation group.
Once overcame the first and basic selection stage, the candidate pilot enters in the training setting: during this time he should be followed regularly and cyclically monitored from the psychological point of view – and this is not the case today -. This means that we have to observe the candidates and the group dynamics during the training at flight schools, repeat tests and apply new questionnaires, conduct psychological and motivational interviews, offer the support of psychological counseling and coaching where appropriate. The presence of psychologist-tutors during the training weeks would be - at this stage of life of the candidate pilot - absolutely essential, but today does not exist!
As the career of the airline pilot begins, annual medical checks have to take off.
These are, however, “medical checks” in which the pilot’s psychological, existential and organizational life (because the airlines are in effect complex work organizations) is not taken into account. It would be useful to look at what is done in the world of the largest multinational organizations in which human resources placed in role or positions of high responsibility are assessed, monitored, trained, coached, along the entire career path, in a light meritocratic way. Why aren’t this kind of management and development human resources processes applied to the pilots and to airline personnel? Why a psychological assessment and an accurate evaluation of the leadership skills and the whole mental status isn’t required to become commander?
In order to increase safety, the commercial air traffic is expected to prepare a professional network of psychologists and psychiatrists, as counselors, that can be questioned at the right times when the pilot lives difficult, personal, relational and existential situations. This network would be made available not only to pilots and commanders, but also to flight attendants.
There is also a third category that seems to be totally neglected in the current debate: the air traffic controllers. These are people who have in their hands and in their eyes the management of the heavens. Professionals that perform a highly stressful job where levels of cognitive attention and mental concentration must remain at the highest levels for prolonged periods of time. What we really do to select, train, consult, assess and adequately support this category of high skilled professionals?
Thus, there are many ideas that could now be taken into account in order to improve the world of flight and make air travel safer. Achieving this goal will be possible if we’ll go past the dichotomy - and often the lack of understanding - between medical doctors, psychiatrics, and psychologists; if we’ll assign the same work dignity to the job of psychologists than that of physicians and psychiatrists; if we’ll organize professional teams where professionals coming from different scientific backgrounds can really integrate their motivation and knowledge, avoiding (for example) power struggles for those who have to say the final word on the suitability of a candidate in the selection process.
I would also emphasized that, for many decades, a specialized area of the applied psychology called Space & Aviation Psychology has been existing: a scientific-professional field in which psychiatrists and psychologists work together having the aim to study every aspect of the flight conditions and situations, working on the so-called “human factor”. It would be very useful and intelligent if this discipline would take at least in some consideration by those who have the authority and the power to decide how to set up management programs for all airline personnel.
I recognize great suitability of the recent joint statement issued by the European Federation of Psychologists and the European Association for Aviation Psychology, titled “Recurrent mental health evaluation essential complement to psychological selection of pilots”, and signed by Robert Roe (president EFPA) and André Droog (president EAAP) in which, among other things, it states that: “EFPA and EAAP emphasize the importance of recurrent evaluation of pilots’ mental health both in the context of the periodic medical examination (JAR-FCL-3) and of well-accepted airline policies and procedures to ensure fitness to fly. They point out that psychologists are at all times ready to provide specialist expertise”.
If we seriously want to try to prevent other incidents similar to the one just happened in France we need to completely rethink the selection, training, assessment, counseling and management of the flight personnel - not only pilots, but also crews and air traffic controllers - from the very early stages of the selection procedures until the final stages of the professional career.

Andrea Castiello d'Antonio
Clinical Psychologist & Psychotherapist. Work & Organizational Psychologist. Aviation Psychologist. Forensic Psychologist. Professor of Clinical & Organizational, Dept. of Psychology, European University of Rome, Italy.