As the world still works to make sense of last week’s horrific Germanwings tragedy, reports are continuing to surface about co-pilot Andreas Lubitz’s mental state. Prosecutors claim Lubitz may have been suffering from a mental health disorder, and now new information alleges that he also displayed suicidal tendencies in the past.
As it emerged that Lubitz may have had a history of mental illness, headlines around the world called him “crazed” and a “madman” and asked “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?” Many newspapers zeroed in on Lubitz’s possible history of depression — even though it had not been confirmed yet — and appeared to draw a direct connection to his depraved actions, with headlines like: “Mass-killer co-pilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings plane had to STOP training because he was suffering depression and ‘burn-out’” (courtesy of the U.K.’s Daily Mail) and “Killer pilot suffered from depression” (via the U.K.’s Daily Mirror). Meanwhile, CNN’s homepage blared “UNFIT TO WORK” in red capitalized letters.
It’s human nature to rationalize tragedies and other traumas that we can’t fully comprehend, but it’s important to be clear about a few things in this ongoing conversation: Suicidal is not synonymous with homicidal, nor is depression an indicator of violence. In fact, when it comes to violence and mental illness, research has consistently shown that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than to engage in it.
“Everyone is trying to understand what happened in this terrible tragic plane crash, but there is a real danger that a correlation is being made between depression and this act, which is overly simplistic and has no evidence attached to it all,” Dr. Paul Farmer, the chief executive of mental health charity Mind, said in an interview with BBC Newsbeat. “The impression which can be given is that somehow people with depression are dangerous, whereas there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case,” said Dr. Farmer.
These overly-simplistic and heavily skewed explanations, which are all too common during horrendous events like the Germanwings crash, can have serious unintended consequences because they conflate depression and suicide — conditions that affect millions of people — with the intention to hurt other people. This perpetuates the stigma of mental illness — and where there’s stigma, there’s apprehension when it comes to getting proper help.
As Masuma Rahim wrote in an op-ed for The Guardian, news reports blaming depression could end up “further demonizing those with mental illness.”
“To conclude that his role in the crash was the automatic consequence of any history of mental illness would be irresponsible and damaging. There has been no suggestion that males should be prohibited from becoming pilots, that Germans are unfit to fly, or that 27-year-olds should not be let loose in the cockpit. Only one factor has been picked over: Lubitz’s mental health.”
We may never know what was going on inside the mind of one individual, but we can’t assign that behavior to an entire community of people who already feel “exiled” or “different” from the rest of society. We have a real opportunity to be a more compassionate culture on the other side of reporting on this tragedy — we just need to be armed with the facts. Below are a few things to keep in mind when discussing mental health and suicide.
MYTH: Suicide is uncommon.
False. Suicide was actually the second-leading cause of death worldwide among 15 to 29-year-olds in 2012, with one person dying of suicide every 40 seconds— but even though suicide is tragically common, it’s incredibly preventable. Approximately 90 percent of people who die by suicide also have a very treatable mental illness, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Usually there are warning signs, and it’s important to encourage others to seek help if you believe they may be in trouble. If you think a friend or family member is considering suicide, you might be afraid to bring up the subject — but talking openly about suicidal thoughts and feelings can save a life.
FACT: Murder-suicide is extremely rare
While the headlines were quick to draw a connection between Lubitz’s apparent suicidal tendencies and his murderous actions, the truth is that the vast majority of people who want to commit suicide have no desire to hurt others in the process. Murder-suicide is a rare phenomenon that accounts for a very small proportion of total suicides. According to a 1992 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, just 1.5 percent of all suicides and 5 percent of all homicides fall under this category in a given year.
MYTH: People with mental illness are violent or “crazy.”
False. Let me repeat that: FALSE. Mental illness does not equate to insanity, nor does it predict violent behavior. Overall, less than one percent of people with severe and untreated mental illness go on to commit a serious violent crime (one resulting in serious or permanent injury) and only 3-5 percent of violent crime is actually attributable to mental illness.
Unfortunately, that message hasn’t gotten through to much of the public. Recent surveys show that the vast majority of Americans believe that people with mental illnesses pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves.
FACT: You probably know someone who has had an experience with mental illness.
Mental health problems are extremely common and there is a very high likelihood that someone close to you has experienced a mental illness. Approximately one in four U.S. adults in a given year suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem. Whether you realize it or not, you probably work with several people who struggle with mental illness.
“The truth is that people with depression are all around us – they are our teachers and solicitors; our plumbers and health professionals,” Rahim wrote in The Guardian.
MYTH: People with a history of depression are unfit for some jobs
“Why on Earth was he allowed to fly?” asked the Daily Mail. The real question is, why not? Depression is an incredibly treatable illness and there is no evidence to suggest that people with a history of depression or those who take antidepressants to manage their depression are any less capable than anyone else. As Dr. Farmer told BBC, “There are thousands of people who work in stressful and important jobs who battle with depression and do their jobs very well.”
Unfortunately, though, the type of reckless media coverage we’ve seen could have a real-life impact on people with depression or other mental illnesses. Judith Robertson, director of the U.K. mental health charity See Me, said she was worried that sensationalist coverage will make it harder for people with mental health issues to get and sustain employment.
“Much of the debate has focused on whether or not he should have been able to work as a pilot given he had a history of depression,” Robinson told the U.K.’s Third Force News. “We are concerned that based on assumptions about his mental health, there have been numerous calls for new measures which would make it harder for anyone with a history of mental health conditions to work in certain roles.”
FACT: You can recover from suicidal thoughts.
One point of contention with the reports on Lubitz’s past “suicidal tendencies” is the underlying implication that once you’re suicidal, you’re always suicidal. This is simply not true. Many people have gone on to live fulfilling, professional and healthy lives with mental illness. Take author S.L. Young, for example, who explained his progression with depression by writing a letter to himself after he moved on from his own suicidal thoughts:
You need to understand that if you choose to save your life tomorrow, your decision will not only impact you. Your choice will also positively affect many others who will benefit from your work over the next year and beyond.
*If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there is help available. In an emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org for non-emergency assistance.