The tragic crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in the French Alps, killing 150 passengers and crew, seemingly caused by the deliberate actions of the Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz, has caused a flurry of conjecture and misinformation about the role of mental illness in the events. Jessica Williams and I discussed this, and what depression isn’t, on Radio Live this Easter Sunday.
“Madman in Cockpit”;”Andreas Lubitz receives treatment for depression”; these were the initial headlines across newspapers in the wake of the plane crash in the French Alps. Not only is this kind of sensationalism about the supposed mental health status of Lubitz unhelpful, it also appears to be wrong.
The fact is Lubitz received treatment for depression in 2008, and seemingly not since. It appears he may have had anti-depressant medication in his home, but it is unclear whether he was taking it, nor is that indicative of depression. What is clear is that being depressed, even suicidally depressed, is no indication of homicidal tendencies, nor is it a predictor of “murder-sucide” as in this case.
Fact: “Depression” doesn’t make people violent.
In fact overall people with a mental health problem are more likely to be a victim of interpersonal violence than a perpetrator of it. And being a young man from a lower socioeconomic group is the strongest “predictor” of violent behavior, independent of any mental illness. Substance abuse is also a much stronger predictor of violence than mental illness, and even more so amongst those who are mentally ill. (about 70% of violent acts committed by those with a mental health problem are by people who are intoxicated.) (Click here for the whole article)
Once more it is easy to confuse correlation and causation, and in doing so, reinforce the stigma that people who are suffering with mental illness are “dangerous.” The fact that Lubitz may have suffered from depression, and committed this horrendous act does not mean one caused the other
So if depression wasn’t to blame, what was? Well there is little doubt that if he did indeed crash the plane he was seriously disturbed, and whilst this level of disturbance and violence may be rare, what are the signs? What makes someone want to kill 150 people, and themselves?
“We know from the other (admittedly very rare) murder-suicide events, that these attacks are usually carried out by young men (young men are, in our society, much more likely to be aggressive), a sense of alienation and resentment against other people and society (often fuelled by very real prejudice and unjust social circumstances), a sense of disillusionment and hopelessness, and attraction towards notorious glamour – often, ironically, fuelled by the kinds of headlines that I and my colleagues in mental health resent. And of course ready access to lethal weapons.” (Click here to read the whole article)
Furthermore, while murder suicide is extremely rare, this particular kind of incident, where the vicitims are not known by the person is particularly unusual…
“Paul Keedwell, a consultant psychiatrist at Cardiff University and a specialist in mood disorders, says that only about two or three people in every million each year carry out murder while committing suicide, and most of these cases are men who end up killing their wives or partners.” (Click here for the whole article)
Sadly though, I believe one of the downsides of the increased discussion about emotional health, and depression in general, is that depression has become a term that can be to easily thrown about to explain behaviour we find hard to understand.
In doing so not only do these reports confuse and mis-inform, but they risk real harm to all those who struggle under the weight of the despair and monumental pain of depression, who sadly will only ever be a danger to themselves.
And while these sorts of headlines are only words, they are more harmful than “depressed” people ever will be.