Simplifying the Germanwings Tragedy Only Stigmatizes Mental Health

On 24 March 2015, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed Germanwings flight 9525. What happened that day was a tragedy and the way this tragedy was reported on by some media outlets was helpful to no one.

Some jumped to label Lubitz a “madman” after information about mental health issues came to light. It is true that Lubitz had a history of mental illness prior to his suicide; in 2009, he suffered from an episode of severe depression, an episode Lufthansa officials were aware of. More recently, the co-pilot took a break during training and, according to prosecutors, had a sick note that allowed him time off from work. (He never submitted this note, opting instead to throw it away). Lubitz’s girlfriend was also aware that he was receiving treatment for psychological problems shortly before the crash.

It is easy to piece together an image of a person’s mental health when you’re consciously looking for a reason as to why someone would intentionally hurt themselves and others. I am not denying that Lubitz may have been mentally ill, in fact, all evidence suggests this might have been the case.

In light of this knowledge, there has been a tendency to stigmatize all those who are mentally ill through the use of offensive scaremongering terms such as “madman.” Mental health charities have warned against blaming Lubitz’s actions entirely on depression and have pointed out that mental illnesses in themselves do not cause a person to harm themselves or others. Mental illnesses affect everyone differently, and cases such as Lubitz’s in which a person resorts to murder-suicide are extremely rare. In 2010 alone, 10% of the German population was reported to suffer from mental stress. That would have been over 8 million people. And these 8 million people did not hurt themselves or others.

At the same time, it cannot be ignored that Lubitz seems to have been ill. And it cannot be ignored that mental health services pretty much all across the world are woefully inadequate, and that many people suffer in silence.

In Andreas Lubitz’s case, his employers seem to have been entirely ignorant of his recent stress. It is because of this that the families of victims who died in the crash are eager for this to serve as a lesson for airlines, and there has been a push for annual screening for mental health issues in pilots. Hopefully, these will be screenings that will help to address the needs of pilots who are struggling with mental health issues, rather than a screening that will merely result in the exclusion of anyone who suffers with mental illness.

Image by Bjoern Schwarz