‘Why on earth was he allowed to fly?’ Why not?
Before I start this post, on behalf of Research The Headlines, I would like to convey our sympathy and condolences to the families and friends who have lost their loved ones in the recent Germanwings plane crash. Any loss of life is tragic. In a disaster like this, we are all desperate to know ‘Why?’. Unfortunately, the more anxious we are to find out the truth, the more likely we are to become the victims of irresponsibly written newspaper headlines, the sole aim of which is to spark sensation rather than to provide the much needed accurate information.
As far as we know, there seems to be enough evidence to suggest that the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane into the mountains. His motives, however, remain very much unknown at this stage of investigation.
Unfortunately, many journalists seem to believe that they know the answer already. Opening with a bold headline ‘Suicide pilot had a long history of depression. WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?’ the Daily Mail went on to claim that ‘The killer Alps pilot’s boss last night admitted he had slipped through “the safety net” and should never have been flying.’ It is a mystery where this “admission” came from. Reviewing the full (translated) transcript of the Lufthansa press conference published by The Independent, the only information disclosed was that the co-pilot ‘interrupted his training’, and that ‘I cannot tell you anything about the reasons of this interruption, but I told you before that anyone interrupts the training has to do a lot of tests so the competence and fitness would be checked again.’ So, what was claimed by the Daily Mail could not be further from what was actually said.
Disappointingly, the Daily Mail was not alone in speculating on the co-pilot’s motive solely based on his presumed history of depression and current mental state. ‘Madman in Cockpit’ said the Sun; ‘Killer Pilot Suffered From Depression’ wrote the Daily Mirror. Blame was further indicated against the airline for failing to prevent depressed individuals from becoming pilots or at least not having done enough to assess mental health problems of their staff. ‘Lufthansa knew about killer pilot’s depression’ claimed The Times.
Before we jump to conclusions, what do we really know about this co-pilot? Almost nothing! A statement issued by Dusseldorf University Hospital only confirmed that the co-pilot had attended the hospital but no further information regarding his medical or psychiatric condition was disclosed. Similarly, the police have reportedly found some ‘sick notes’ in his residence, but again the contents of these notes are unknown to us. So, all we know really is that: 1) he might have a history of depression, 2) he might have been treated for mental health difficulties, and 3) his ex-girlfriend confirmed that they have recently broken up.
As a clinical psychologist, I often struggle to understand why people seem to think that individuals with depression would be prone to violence. I puzzle because there really has not been any research evidence whatsoever to suggest such a link. In fact, mental health patients were shown to have double the risk of being a victim of homicide than people in the general public. While depression does unfortunately increase the risk for suicide, and some depressed individuals may experience irritability or anger, depression does not lead to any significant risk of harming others. Violence of this scale, or mass murder as in this case, is extremely rare. Even if this co-pilot was indeed depressed or suffered from other mental health difficulties, either in the past or at the time, we simply cannot deduce that his mental health was the sole or main cause of committing such an act. It should also be emphasised that, even if mental health difficulties did play a role in influencing the co-pilot’s action on this occasion, a single, rare, and isolated case cannot be generalised to imply that depression or mental health problems increase the risk for murder.
Amidst all the horrendous headlines, it was a refreshing sight to see The Guardian present an insightful article. Entitled ‘Don’t blame depression for the Germanwings tragedy’, this article not only helped quash the myth about the link between depression and violence, it also highlighted the risk of ‘further demonising those with mental health problems’. In fact, the arguments presented in The Guardian were so comprehensive, well researched, and balanced that it almost rendered it unnecessary for me to write this post. However, against the many misleading headlines, I believe there could never be too many attempts to de-stigmatise mental health difficulties.