Depression, Germanwings, and Unmitigated Ignorance

From the moment the news about Andreas Lubitz’ struggles with depression broke, I knew things were going to get ugly in a hurry. When you combine tragedy with ignorance, you’re bound to hear a lot of stupid. A part of me (perhaps naively) had hoped that some of the fear mongering would fizzle out after a bit, but that hasn’t been the case. The news cycle has focused with white hot intensity on whether and when Lufthansa knew about Lubitz and his diagnosis, with one question being collectively shouted in their rage:

If he was depressed, why was he allowed to fly in the first place?

I’ve watched as otherwise reasonable people have defaulted to this position, shocked in spite of myself at the hubris it takes to ask that with a straight face. Why was he allowed to fly? You mean other than the fact that a mental illness diagnosis need not be a disability? Or the fact that depression, along with a slew of other diagnoses, is treatable and manageable? Or the fact that mental illness and violent or destructive behavior are not inherently linked? Or the fact that the assumptions prompting you to ask that question are not based in fact and contribute to the stigma that forces so many like Lubitz to not get the help they need?

Time for a reality check. You know who else struggles with mental illness? The people you entrust your lives to on a regular basis.

I’m talking about the bus driver who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder that gives him panic attacks but who still manages to get you to and from work every day. I’m talking about the police officer directing traffic whose seasonal depression drains her energy but doesn’t stop her from doing her job. I’m talking about the mother on playground duty who quietly wrestles with borderline personality disorder but makes sure your kid doesn’t put himself in harm’s way. I’m talking about the soldier lumbering forward under the weight of PTSD more so than the rifle he carries to keep you safe at night. I’m talking about the teacher with bipolar disorder who once contemplated suicide regularly before she found the right combination of meds.

Those fighting and living with mental illness are not some abstract threatening boogeyman. They are neighbors, friends, family members, civil servants, business leaders, and, yes, they are pilots. It is estimated that one in five individuals has a  mental illness. There are more than half a million pilots out there, per the FAA. Doing the math, that means there are plausibly more than 100,000 pilots flying the friendly skies while living with mental illness who will likely never crash a plane into the side of a mountain.

And we are not doing them or ourselves any favors with the way we’re approaching this topic.

People are legitimately asking these questions like the mentally ill are a scourge from which the public must be protected at all costs. There has been extensive discussion about improving mental health screenings for pilots — which is awesome in that mental health should be a priority in every line of work, but especially so in cases where you’re responsible for safeguarding lives. What’s not awesome is that these screenings are being framed as a method of exclusion. The idea of it is that if a diagnosis is present, you’re out.

It’s a terrible idea, in that respect, and for a couple reasons. First, such a policy doesn’t do much good. For all those confused about how Lubitz went undetected for all this time, have a chat with someone in your life who struggles with mental illness. Or take it from me, someone who was in the bipolar disorder denial closet for more than ten years: you get really good at hiding it, because it feels like the only way to protect yourself from folks like the ones raising hell right now. Unless someone is incredibly symptomatic, odds are they can BS their way through a cursory evaluation with a doctor who doesn’t have enough of a history with them to see through the act.

Second, mandatory mental health screenings for the purpose of exclusion has the potential to do a lot of harm. Knowing that those who fight mental illness get good at masking it, do you think threatening their jobs is going to make them more or less likely to be honest about it with a doctor? Would you be? If anything, using the results of these screenings in punitive fashion makes it far less likely that the people who need help most will seek it out. And we’re not just talking current pilots. Anyone who might have any high flying aspirations for the future may avoid seeking treatment now to preserve their career prospects. Nobody wins in that scenario.

Stigma isn’t the public concern at the moment, but it should be. Had mental wellness been a priority for Lufthansa, had informed policies been in place, had compassionate care been emphasized, Lubitz might have continued his treatment. He might have felt comfortable seeking help when things started to spiral. We might not be having this conversation right now.

You want to prevent this from happening again? Start with checking your ignorance before you add to the stigma that got us here in the first place.

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