The Germanwings Co-Pilot and the Stigma of Mental Illness


I’m sure you have all heard of Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who tragically crashed the Germanwings Airbus A320 into the Alps last week, killing himself and the other 149 people on board.

There are of course many questions that following this event; we want to understand how something so devastating to so many was allowed to happen. And it is right that we should reach for answers and learn from such incidents to avoid anything like this happening again. However, what is not right is the angle taken by the British media focusing on Lubitz’s mental health.pastedImage (2) - Copy

Several headlines have referenced the fact that Lubitz was reportedly suffering from a mental illness, and used this to question his morals, trustworthiness, and decency as a human being. ‘Madman in Cockpit’, screams the Sun, ‘Why on earth was he allowed to fly?’ questions the Daily Mail. The Mirror declares ‘Killer pilot suffered from depression’, implying that the two facts are in any way related. Yes, it is accurate to say that having a mental illness might have affected the decisions Lubitz made that fateful day. It is also true that they could be entirely unrelated, though this is something the British media have been neglectful to point out. ­­­­

One in four adults suffers from a mental illness at some point in their lives, and only 5% of violent crimes are committed by those with a mental health diagnosis. Yet we continue to be fed this inaccurate and stigmatising informaion from the media, telling us to fear the mentally ill and that they should not be trusted.

pastedImage - CopySo why on earth was he allowed to fly? Probably because there is no evidence that being depressed correlates to wanting to kill other people. Yes there are mental illnesses that can increase the sufferer’s risk to others and there is no denying that (although it is important to note again that this is an absolute minority). However, depression is not one of these. Recent reports suggest that Lubitz had previously declared his mental health history to his employer. He reportedly underwent a physical and psychological examination which stated he was safe to fly. So my question is, why on earth should he not have been allowed to fly? Why should somebody continue to be penalised for an illness that they have reported to have suffered from years before? Should we remove driving licences from all bus drivers and taxi drivers who have a history of depression? What about doctors and nurses who work with the vulnerable, hairdressers with sharp implements, teachers who work with children, bankers who look after our money, chefs who prepare our food? Of course not, because these things don’t correlate. Someone’s ability to do their job may be affected by their depression, they may find it hard to concentrate, be unmotivated and even be unable to get out of bed to make it into work at all. There are many symptoms of depression, but being a danger to other people is not one of them.

People who knew Andreas Lubitz have been quoted as saying ‘no one laughing like that could actually have mental problems’, ‘he was very polite, there were no signs of mental instability’, ‘he was a sympathetic guy. He didn’t seem depressed. He had a nice girlfriend’. Statements like this, although seemingly innocent enough, do nothing to help address the stigma of mental illness. Peop­le with depression can laugh and smile. They can be polite, sympathetic, and caring towards others. They can lead otherwise healthy lives and appear entirely normal. Why? Because they are normal. Anybody has the capacity to have a mental health problem at some point in their lives, and a quarter of people will. But recovery is possible and mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of or feared.

There are rumours that Lubitz hid more recent developments regarding his mental health. But can we really surprised by that given the  stigma that so evidently still surrounds this subject?

Being at university can be incredibly stressful, particularly for those who are living away from home. It is hard enough to share with others if we feel we are struggling, and this publicity over the last week has only sought to reinforce the shame and worry those who suffer from mental health feel. It is so important that those people feel supported to disclose any difficulties. Please remember that there are many ways to access support, both at university and outside of this environment.

It is natural to speculate in the wake of such a tragic event, we as humans have a need to make sense of situations in order to try and understand how things so sad and beyond our control are able to happen. But to make links to theories that target and stigmatise entire groups of people is irresponsible. We gain so much of our knowledge from the media; In a world where the mentally ill are already judged so negatively, the coverage of this story has potentially caused massive setbacks in the positive work done in recent years to combat mental health discrimination, and has gone to show just how much more work needs to be done to give mental health the equality it deserves.


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  18. You Say Adventure, I Say Ordeal
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  31. Time to Talk Day – What’s it All About?
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Student mental health nurse, Time to Change Ambassador and passionate campaigner for the end of mental health discrimination.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. avatar

    This article is just fantastic and certainly outlines the ignorance of society today. Yes opinions need to be valued but also as excellently explained above so does the health of each and every one of us.

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