The murder suicide of Andreas Lubitz last week, with Germanwings flight 9525 was a terrible tragedy, for all concerned- the 149 victims and their families must be devastated by what the Co-Pilot chose to do. In all the news reports, there has not been any sympathy garnered for Andreas, or his family. Some may say that he does not deserve it, but I would be one of the first to disagree with this perspective. I am not saying that Andreas is absorbed from any responsibility for his actions; I am saying we need to learn and grow from them.
This kind of murder-suicide has happened before- from my research, at least 9 times before. That is a lot. Too many times, if we are being honest. From the news reports, it would appear that there have been failings at many levels- both from the Co-pilot himself, and the process of risk and safety and security from the airlines. One can only hope that these processes have all been re-evaluated in the light of 24th March’s events, and that the situation of one person being alone in the cockpit will not happen again.
I am no aviation expert; I do not know the rules and regulations of air flight. What I do know, are people. Although not an expert in people, I have dedicated the last 10 years of my life towards learning about the ‘human condition’ and what makes us ‘tick’. Over the years, the stigma of depression has decreased, but as demonstrated in the last week; we are still not over the fact that 1 in 6 people suffer depression in their lifetime, and that this is a completely normal illness.
The failing here, I believe, was in company policy- had Germanwings had a policy that there was always to be two people in the cockpit at any given time, as in the US, Andreas would not have had the opportunity to do what he did. So, this then begs the question- was it premeditated or a spontaneous act?
When people suffer with depression, usually, the only people that they are willing to hurt are themselves. Suicide is a form of self-harm; an extreme form of self-harm, but self-harm none the less. The problem with screening for this type of event, is that it would bring up too many false positive’s (Eliason, 2009); making it unfeasible both ecologically and financially.
Most murder-suicides are actually between couples, or estranged couples (Eliason, 2009) and premeditating factors are; substance abuse; divorce and separation; 88% of the time, the victims are female; depression was a risk factor, but in most of the cases of murder-suicide, this was between a couple who had broken up- not an aircraft full of men, women and children. The supposition that Andreas had recently split from his partner is there, but as yet there is no proof to determine this, or indeed if it was a cause or effect of his mental state. But aren’t we getting away from the point here, just a little?
Murder-suicide is rare, especially of this magnitude. Not everyone who is depressed is going to kill themselves, let alone anybody else; so, surely the question here, is why is someone who was mentally ill being demonised for actually being… well, mentally ill? We do not know the factors involved, but what we do know is that the resulting chaos in the press has served to stigmatise mental illness even further. Headline such as ‘Crazed Pilot’ from the Daily Mail; web articles with titles such as ‘Mad, Sad or Bad’ are screaming out the prejudice that society still serves towards mentally ill people.
Dr Paul Keedwell, a Psychiatrist at Cardiff University, was quoted in the Independent newspaper as saying “Among cases of murder suicide in general, the rate of previously diagnosed depression varies from 40 to 60 per cent, depending on the context. Of those who are depressed, very few are being treated for it..” (Connor, S 2015). But most crucially, amongst professionals, the consensus is that murder-suicide is not explainable by depression. Therefore, something more is going on in play here, but, because most of the people who are involved in murder-suicide, who know the perpetrator, are actually the victims of the crime, we cannot get a real psychological pathology of what was going on for the perpetrator at the time (Eliason, 2009).
But again, surely there is something wrong here? Yes, a crime has been committed, and the person who committed it, who we are calling the perpetrator, well, surely they, too, could be considered a victim? I don’t know about you, but the above statistic is actually quite frightening- up to 60% of people among murder suicide cases are not being treated for depression- what we have to ask, is why? If they are not being treated for depression, and the consensus is that murder-suicide is more than just depression- where are the health care system, and employers, letting us down?
Professor Michael Anestis, director of the Suicide and Emotional Dysregulation Lab at the University of Southern Mississippi states that ‘we are not particularly good at detecting risk; who’s going to do it and when’ (Bruenig, E. 2015). Reasons cited for not disclosing mental illness are fear or repercussions professionally and personally. And there in lies the problem. Mental illness, of any form, is still so radically stigmatized that the people who genuinely need the help, are not seeking it. Suffering a mental illness does not have to mean that your life is over; it does not have to mean that you lose your job. What it does mean, is that if you look for, and get support for your illness, there is help available.
In the UK, we are not used to paying for healthcare; we expect everything to be free, as we are lucky enough to have our NHS (National Health Service). However, with budget cuts and a rapidly expanding population, more prone to mental illness (or is it just the fact that we are more likely to report it? That, my friends, is an issue for another blog post!), it means that we are having to look to private healthcare to gain the mental health support we need, and perhaps that is where the model falls down? By having private therapy, individuals who are worried about their professional or private lives, can try to mitigate some of the fall out. Not all, but some. We think nothing of paying £45 for a pair of shoes or a console game, but when it comes to our mental health, we just don’t want to part with the money. So, herein lies the trap- individuals in need do not want to go to their Doctors, but they also deem private care too expensive. Where is the middle ground?
Well, it revolves around reducing the stigma attached to depression and mental illness. The more we can remove this stigma, the more people will seek help for their difficulties. This wont stop every murder-suicide- it would be impossible to catch everyone with one net- but it could help to change peoples lives.
Why are we still stigmatizing mental health, in this day and age? We know that there can be genetic factors involved; we know that stressful events can trigger depression and we know that sometimes, due to our brains physiology, depression can just happen. So, if it could happen to you, then surely it could happen to me? And you. And you. And you. See? If we keep the stigma of mental health, at some point it may affect you or someone you love.
From the headlines I have seen, it is fairly true to say that there is still a huge stigma towards mental illness in the media- an Australian Mental Health Charity, Sane, found ‘that SANE research from 2007 found that inaccurate and prejudiced assumptions about people with a mental illness could be reduced through increased accurate and helpful reporting in the media.’ So, have the headlines of the last few weeks really been helpful? Or have they just served to increase our societal prejudice towards mental health issues?
We need more empathy, more concern and more understanding towards mental health; if we do this, people will not be so afraid to come forwards to get the help they really need. It isn’t fair to all those families out there, suffering because of a silent illness. After all, how do you know that your family isn’t suffering because of a loved one’s health? Or if you do, are you too scared to open up about it, because of what others will think?
Either way, more tolerance is needed. I am not saying this would of stopped Andreas from his horrendous actions, but perhaps, just perhaps, openness, understanding and awareness of mental health issues could stop people feeling like they have no other option, by reaching them before they get to this point. It’s your choice- choose to reduce the stigma.
Bruenig, E.S. (2015) The Germanwings Mass Murder–Suicide Shows the Importance of Depression Intervention, 30 March, [Online], Available: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121405/germanwings-pilot-andreas-lubitz-struggled-severe-depression [01 April 2015].
Connor, S. (2015) Germanwings Plane Crash: ‘Murder-suicide’ cannot be explained as depression, say experts, 27 March, [Online], Available: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/germanwings-plane-crash-murdersuicide-cannot-be-explained-as-depression-say-experts-10140104.html [02 April 2015].
Eliason, S. (2009) ‘Murder-Suicide: A Review of the Recent Literature’, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law Online, vol. 39, no. 3, September, pp. 371-376.