Stigmatizing Depression Is Not Going To Help Us Understand What Germanwings Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz Did

An abhorrent act that takes many lives might have been the result of mental illness, but to focus on the suicide and stigmatize depression is irresponsible.
Publish date:
April 1, 2015
mental illness, depression, suicide

A funny thing happened on the way to the de-stigmatization of depression. On one hand, more and more people are coming forward to say that depression is a real, treatable illness that we live with and need to take seriously, which is wonderful for progress.

However, it's still far too easy and profitable for mainstream media to sensationalize and stigmatize mental illness as the way to try and make sense of actual senseless atrocities. So, while there's more open media discussion of depression than ever, there's still also a feverish need to quantify exactly what this "depression" is, what it looks like, how it manifests itself, and what danger(s) it poses.

That is not conclusively possible, which some people will never be able to understand. If only we could prevent them from trying.

I don't want people to stop trying to understand depression, of course. Whether we personally live with it or not, it serves us all to work toward having a better grasp of mental illness. What I want is for conversations about depression, public and private, to focus more on compassion, care, and treatment than finger-pointing and accusations.

This is on my mind more today because of last week’s tragic plane crash in the French Alps. I can’t even imagine the grief of those who mourn the 150 lives lost in such a horrific way. It feels pointless, but I offer my sincere condolences.

It also feels inaccurate to say that those lives were “lost.” Reports indicate that they were actually taken, since the plane was apparently crashed intentionally by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. As investigators pored over the black box recordings and released information to the media, the headlines took shape:

It was revealed that Andreas Lubitz had been treated and possibly hospitalized for depression years ago. Then it was confirmed. Then it was denied. He was upset over breaking up with his girlfriend. Maybe she had been pregnant. Maybe not. He was said to have had vision problems. Then he was said to have been under treatment for “an unspecified condition.” A search of his home turned up prescriptions and physician’s notes declaring him unfit for work for a period of time, including the day he deliberately flew into the Alps.

The note was allegedly torn up and his employers allegedly have no awareness of it.

If it seems like I just breezed through a lot of potential legal testimony and allegedly-type statements, it’s because I did. If you’re looking for a comprehensive list of facts and evidence as they have been released to so far, this may prove helpful. And this article in The Guardian makes a case against stigmatization in the reportage as well, and it also includes helpful mental health resources.

I have no forensic points to make, and right now I am less interested in Andreas Lubitz’ state of mind than I am in yours. And mine. And anyone’s who deals with depression.

All over my social media feed, people have been saying what depression is and isn’t in an effort to separate the millions of us who deal with this from the word “killer.” Some form of the following statement was made over and over again:

Depressed people can barely get out of bed, let alone fly a plane and kill other people.

Here’s the thing: we, as a society, haven’t fully figured out mental illness yet, which is why we have to keep trying and researching and treating and talking about it. Without judgement, without fear, and without stigma.

The judgement of conclusively saying what is and what is not depression is limiting and counterproductive. Yes, research has taught us warning signs, and characteristics, and symptoms. We have the NIMH and the Beck Depression Inventory, as well as other valuable tools for mental health professionals to use in diagnosis and treatment.

Yet we also have unprofessional mental health “professionals,” rampant misdiagnoses, and poor treatment or a lack of treatment altogether. The same impulse to just know what this thing is, to give it a name and a label and a shape and a solid form, applies to both this heinous tragedy and also to depression itself.

We just can’t explain how this could have happened. The impulse is to try and explain it anyway, both to sell papers and also to sleep at night. That impulse doesn’t excuse stigmatization, and yet we also cannot draw hard lines around exactly what depression IS or is NOT in response. That’s another kind of stigmatization.

The truth is that, so often, we just don’t know. I have no idea what Andreas Lubitz’ depression looked like. You may have no idea what someone else’s depression is like for them. I may not know what yours looks like.

But I’d like to try. I’d like to be able to have more conversations and more acceptance, so that we can know more and do better. For every person in my life that I’ve told I was struggling who dismissed me because I “look great” or was still doing my job or going to the gym every day. We need to do better.

Some people’s depression keeps them in bed for days. Not everyone’s does. We all deserve to be listened to, and I don’t want anyone to feel silenced, or not open up, or get help if they feel they need it, because of “killer” headlines or not fitting into the parameters some are using to combat them.

Being open to the possibility that depression may be more prevalent than most people think, and that it doesn’t always look one certain way or do drastic things or make headlines, can be terrifying. And so is the fearmongering that labels us.

In the case of Andreas Lubitz, something went terribly wrong, and we just don’t conclusively know what that was. Writing about this, I have felt sick to my stomach, not unlike when I wrote about the killer who took 6 lives on the UCSB campus last year before taking his own life.

An abhorrent act that takes many lives might have been the result of mental illness, but to focus on the suicide and stigmatize depression is irresponsible.

The tragedy at UCSB was called a “shooting spree” and a “mass murder-suicide.” Then, as now, the killer was fair enough of skin that coded words like “terrorist” and “thug” will never enter the conversation. Genial press pictures of Andreas Lubitz, have shown him posing near landmarks and jogging for charity. If he were a brown or black man who had intentionally crashed a plane and killed 149 people, the narrative would absolutely be different.

No, his depression is the headline. People are parsing the word “terrorism” to the bone about whether there needs to be a clear political agenda attached to an action in order to qualify it as such, and that debate rages on. This horror is more akin to a suicide bombing, but that is also not accurate in this case. Looking into Lubitz’ life has also made me aware that the term “suicide by pilot” exists to describe this rare yet deadly occurrence.

His depression is the headline.

The distinctions of death matter. Legally, ideologically, linguistically, and spiritually, there is much value in delineating between homicide and manslaughter, between intent and accident, between randomness and terror.

150 people are dead and his depression is the headline.

I just glanced down at my laptop keyboard and something caught my eye—there’s a button with an outline of an airplane on it to signify “airplane mode.” Now I’m imagining the last moments of that flight, as they have been reported. The screams of the passengers that were heard on the flight data recorder; the pounding of the pilot as he tried to bust down the locked door of the cockpit to save everyone onboard, using first his fists and then the plane’s emergency axe.

One person on that plane might have been suicidal, and he might have chosen to use his last moments of life, at the controls of a massive aircraft, to end his life. The other 149 people on the plane did not make that choice, and yet they are dead. That’s 149 reasons this wasn’t only a suicide. That’s 149 people who didn’t agree that March 24, 2015 would be their last day on Earth.

I have empathy for my fellow mental illness battlers. I have sympathy for people who have chosen suicide. I have neither for Andreas Lubitz. For at least 149 reasons.