The Germanwings Discussion Is Worsening the Stigma of Mental Illness

When a plane goes down, we all want to know why. When a plane is purposefully crashed by its pilot, the only answer that makes sense is that “He must have been crazy.” How does someone kill themselves and 150 other people? The problem is that labeling a person as “crazy” or “mentally ill” does not in any way explain why the plane was crashed and those on board murdered, but it does push those in need of help further from it by worsening the stigma of mental illness and underscoring unfounded public fears.

Before we delve further into this topic, I feel like I must make a full disclosure as the author of this piece. I have suffered from several diagnosable mental illnesses, including an anxiety disorder, severe depression, and alcoholism. But I do not let these experiences define me. Today, I am a PhD who has published two books and speaks internationally on the subject of addiction recovery. I am more than 16 years sober and neither anxiety nor depression has any impact on my daily life. If we can convince people to step forward and get help, many disorders are treatable and from some there is full recovery.

In a beautiful piece by Julie Beck in The Atlantic, titled, “Depressed Doesn’t Mean Dangerous,” Beck writes to our deepest desire to make meaning out of the tragedy of the Germanwings flight. She seeks advice from a leading psychiatrist who states:

“It’s kind of natural to say ‘This just has to be deeply crazy,’” says Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who studies violence and mental illness. But people who commit mass murder “are really atypical of people with mental illness,” he says. “The vast majority of people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression are not likely to do anything violent and never will.”

Violence is not a hallmark of mental illness. It is a hallmark of criminality. The Atlantic article continues:

By one measure, only 5 percent of violent crime is actually attributable to mental illness.

However, over the course of a year, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in four people will suffer from a mental illness. This is an enormous number of people who need help. The Slate suggests:

Although fewer than 6 percent of American adults will have a severe mental illness in a given year, according to a 2005 study, many more—more than a quarter each year—will have some diagnosable mental disorder. That’s a lot of people. Almost 50 percent of Americans (46.4 percent to be exact) will have a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetimes…

The facts don’t lie. Overwhelmingly, individuals with mental illness are nonviolent. Even those who pose a threat to themselves through suicidal thoughts or actions will only rarely hurt another. Violence perpetrated by those with mental illness is decidedly rare.

More than being concerned with whether or not the pilot was depressed, we should be concerned with sociopathic or psychopathic inclinations, thoughts or behaviors that would show a lack of conscience and give a person the ability and/or desire to kill 150 people. Sociopathic traits are not those we commonly associate with depressed individuals, but with school shooters and suicide bombers. It is not the suicidality of the pilot that is concerning, but his desire and/or willingness to kill others along with himself that we should be on the lookout for in the future.

What can be done to prevent another tragedy? Many things. The two-persons in the cockpit rule should be internationally accepted. Screening should be done for the use of drugs and illicit substances, which is done in the US, but not universally. An impaired pilot is much more likely to come across than a homicidal one. Pilots should be mature in age and demeanor and have considerably more hours of experience than this pilot had. Until there are good screening tests for sociopathy, we need to be sure that we have clear headed, experienced, mature pilots working as part of a team at all times in the plane. That is our best bet at preventing another airline disaster.

Nothing is gained by inappropriately stigmatizing the mentally ill. Many mental illnesses can be overcome and only a small percentage of mentally ill persons are violent. We need to call this what it is, a criminal act, and look for solutions that address potential criminality as we would with a school shooter, a suicide bomber, or any other form of murderer.


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