The crash of Germanwings flight 4U 9525 last week was a tragedy, there is no other word for it. If I were a family member of one of those killed I would want no stone left unturned in the investigation as to how and why this happened. However, I may not want the media who to keep turning those stones over and over to no end other than feeding their 24-hour rolling-news culture, with it’s signature mix of repetition and supposition.
What goes on in the mind someone who crashes a plane carrying innocent strangers into a mountain is completely beyond me. But whatever the explanation may be (and it is unlikely we will ever get one) I can’t be the only person who is disturbed by the number of times they’ve heard the phrase “suffered from depression” in the past week.
Today a new and more even disturbing phrase has emerged. Headlines report that Andreas Lubitz had “suicidal tendencies”. Almost everywhere I see this term is it in quotation marks, somehow rendering it all the more powerful. But it is not quotation. What the German prosecutor actually said was that a long time ago before Lubitz even became a pilot he was described as “being suicidal”. (Well, if we are being completely accurate, “suicidical”, but let’s put that darkly comic mispronunciation aside for now).
The difference between describing someone as ‘being suicidal’ and having ‘suicidal tendencies’ might seem subtle or even unimportant to many people but to me the latter phrase sounds oddly sinister. No one ever describes a person as having “compassionate tendencies” or “tendencies towards comedy”, do they? No, this phraseology speaks of the media reaching for hyperbole and pathologising a young man because that is the best way to get more ‘life’ out of this chilling tale.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Andreas Lubitz’s mental health had nothing to do with the plane crash, on the contrary I’m pretty sure that it had a lot to do with it. But that’s not the same as obliquely explaining this tragedy with his history of depression and suicidal thoughts.
It seems that it is very difficult for the media to treat mental health as what it is; a health issue. The idea that Lubitz consciously decided to crash the plane makes it difficult to really get to grips with the fact that this action may have been caused by an illness he had no control over. If the co-pilot had a heart condition and the crash was likely to have been caused by an aneurysm, you can bet that the news coverage would have had a different tone. Perhaps even a tone that carried a little sympathy for the man whose health condition caused this unspeakable tragedy. Instead he is treated with suspicion and his life is picked apart for the whole world to see. And remember, he is someone’s son; his family are suffering too.
The constant focus on Lubitz’s previous mental health is, in my opinion, distasteful and insensitive. It’s like “Oh yeah he had depression, well that explains everything!” “Wait, suicidal tendencies?? Case closed!” As usual, The Daily Mail leads the way grossly-simplified-and-offensive ‘journalism’.
Well, I don’t mind telling you that I have had suicidal thoughts many times in my life. I have had persistent and scary feelings of violence towards myself. It is not a nice place to be. But as someone who could be described as having “suicidal tendencies” I can confirm that throughout these excruciating periods of ill mental health I had no desire to involve anyone else in my pain. And neither do the majority of people who are unfortunate enough to suffer from these thoughts and urges.
Because depression is not an illness that leads to murder-suicide. Depression is an illness that sometimes leads to suicide, but mostly is lived with, is struggled through, by millions of people across the globe every day. Someone in your office, many people who teach your children in school, those who sit on the benches of parliament and you yourself may live with this ubiquitous illness, which somehow only manages to be mentioned in the media when tragedy strikes or as an offhand statistic.
The constant conjecture, too, over screening systems for pilots worries me a little. The procedural reform of having two people in the cockpit at any one time seems sensible, but any suggestion that having a history of depression should be a barrier to a career as a pilot would be a totally misplaced. And it may be fear of such stigmatisation that causes many people not disclose their mental health issues to their employers in the first place.
To rub salt into the wound, the more, shall we say ‘enlightened’ news media accompany their sensationalist headlines with reports that all this coverage could lead to further ‘stigmatisation’ of depression and mental illness. Well, doh.
For example, if you have the patience to click the link marked “what drives people to murder-suidcide” on the BBC news website, and then scroll down for a while, you will find the educated opinions of psychiatrists and mental health charities, emphasising the fact that we don’t know whether or not depression played any role in the Germanwings crash and warning against sensationalism. Still, over all it’s a bit of a confused message!
Inexplicable hey Beeb? Well, I wonder why you didn’t make that your bloody headline then.
Unfortunately sensationalism sells, and even our more responsible media outlets fall into its trap. Still, I’d like to add my voice to the din of misplaced hypothesising.
I don’t know what happened in that cockpit. Neither do the families of all those who died. Neither do the qualified and committed people who have the grim task of recovering the remains and attempting to explain this tragedy. And guess what? Neither do the BBC or the Daily Mail or anyone else. It is natural to want answers, but to concoct them out of such thin evidence would be a dishonour to all who so needlessly lost their lives on that flight. So let’s just not do that, okay?
Excerpts used in this post were found at: