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German Wings

March 29, 2015

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Like many involved in the battle to change attitudes towards mental illness, my heart sank on Friday morning when, walking through Clapham Junction Station, I caught sight of the day’s newspaper headlines.  In language at the best sensationalist and in many cases judgemental and stigmatising they made the claim that the Tuesday’s tragic crash of the German Wings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf could be blamed on a man, the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, suffering from severe depression.

So after years of improving attitudes and improving media coverage, even in the tabloids, here we were back again in the bad all days where mental illness could be freely demonised and where gross stereotypes could be applied to those affected.  I have always disliked the kind of media scrum which follows a high profile tragedy like Tuesday’s crash where the media chase after every possible detail and angle on the story and where the currency of competition tends to be expressed in terms of the sensationalism of the headline or comment.

It is expected that the journey to change attitudes towards mental illness will take some twists.  As I know well from my professional experience the narrative is not a totally simple one.  Mental Illness can have a destructive impact, most often on the individual themselves, but in a small number of cases on those around the person.  Such experiences must be understood and talked about but they do not justify blanket statements and stereotypes which have such a negative impact on people living with mental health problems.

We do not know, nor perhaps will we ever know, exactly what happened on that flight on Tuesday nor what was going through the mind of Andreas Lubitz.  What is certain is that it was a horrific tragedy for the 150 people on board and their families.   Having flown myself last weekend the news struck me all the more forcibly with that sense of the narrow lines of fate which divide the lucky from the unlucky in life.  Flying is still a relatively recent achievement of mankind and there is still a deep seated superstition about it and morbid fascination about accidents which we do not direct to many of the mundane things which claim many more human lives each year.  Despite what it involves flying is a remarkably safe activity.  There will be lessons to learn from this incident but I also wish we would get as excited by motorists using mobile phones when they are driving.

The bold assertion made by some parts of the media is that it was outrageous that Andreas Lubitz, having a history of depression, should have been allowed to fly.  Would the same have been said if he had been suffering from diabetes or another long term condition where, if badly managed, there is a risk of serious consequences?  There are clearly circumstances where someone’s state of health means that they are unfit to carry out their job, especially if that job had the level of responsibility associated with being an airline pilot.  Such judgements should be specific though to individual circumstances not a blanket exclusion of people with a history of a particular condition.

Depression is after all the most common mental health condition.  Worldwide 8-12% of us should expect to experience it in our lifetimes.  There are people with a history of depression in many if not all walks of life.   It is no surprise to find that there are airline pilots who have suffered from it and there is no specific reason why, as a result, they should not be allowed to fly.  It is, in many cases, a very treatable condition.

That is a link to the two final points I wish to make.  Depression is a treatable condition but there is an enormous scandal about access to that treatment with more than 70% of people with the condition unlikely to be offered any form of treatment.  The comparable figure for diabetes is less than 10%.  There is an enormous economic and other consequence of that institutional bias against mental health. That lack of access to treatment  is also probably the biggest single cause of the more than 4,000 lives lost through suicide each in this country.

The second point relates to disclosure.  As I have said, there is insufficient detail to know exactly what happened with Andreas Lubitz.  I have a sense that however that he may not have been in a position to be open about his issues as might have been ideal.  Disclosure is difficult.  While stigma is common and stereotypes abound there are lots of reasons why people feel that they cannot disclose a history of mental health issues.    As I know from personal experience undisclosed issues are much harder to support and make it more difficult to put in place the reasonable adjustments which can make a crucial difference in the working life of someone who is living with a mental health condition such as depression.  Friday’s coverage will have discouraged many more to be open about a history of mental illness.

By the end of the day having seen some of the response on social media and elsewhere I felt more reassured that, while a setback, Friday’s media coverage of this story was not a reversal of the progress which campaigns such as Time to Change have made.  It does show how much is still to be done.

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