WHY WE KEEP GETTING MENTAL HEALTH SO WRONG

April 6, 2015

It’s been thirteen days since Germanwings Flight 9525 slammed into the French Alps and killed everyone on board. As the details behind this story develop, alongside the perplexing tragedy, the media repeatedly reports on one part: the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz’s, mental health.

A jumble of facts, assumptions and speculations, this desperate coverage continues to make statements like:

“New information about Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. Prosecutors now saying [he] was undergoing medical treatment.”

“Several newspapers in Germany reporting that Lubitz had been undergoing psychiatric therapy. Not quite a smoking gun, but a whiff of gunpowder in the air if nothing else.”

“The co-pilot in the Germanwings crash reportedly had a history of depression. Andreas Lubitz was even treated at this clinic in Düsseldorf within the past two months. For what we do not know.”

“He once told a girlfriend that the entire world would someday know his name. Lubitz [said] he was in psychiatric treatment and was planning a spectacular gesture.”

“Why on earth was he allowed to fly? Suicide pilot had a long history of depression.”

I think there’s agreement that we need to discuss Lubitz’s mental health since 150 lives were lost and everyone deserves answers. However, sensationalizing stories that intertwine mental health and disaster is damaging. We’ve come a long way in terms of de-stigmatizing mental illness, but this kind of coverage brings us back to square one.

Stigma is the biggest reason people avoid treating mental illness, and attitudes don’t change quickly. One badly reported example by the media drives people away from seeking treatment for illnesses like depression. Public safety is critical, but how many people will be hurt, because of how this story is being covered?

Mental health + 24/7, instantaneous news
Germanwings Flight 9525 is breaking news. However, we’re misinforming the public about the role mental health issues play in the lives of those afflicted with mental illness. Most depressed people don’t hurt others. Nor do they typically plan a “spectacular gesture.”

The truth is we cover mental health badly most of the time. That’s dangerous because it distorts peoples’ understanding of mental health.

Events need to be explained. In this case though, we’re rushing to explain a story we barely know anything about. We don’t know if Lubitz was depressed. What we know is that he suffered depression previously, which isn’t the same thing. In this story for example, we’re using depression as another word for dangerous, which simply isn’t true.

Fear of saying what we don’t know
The known is that Lubitz was treated for depression in 2009. The unknowns are what kind of treatment he was receiving when this plane went down, whether the mental health system’s accountability failed here, and what kind of psychological testing he actually endured as a pilot.

Knowing the answers to these questions would change the context of the few facts we do know. Yet, we generally have a tendency to use small pieces of information to explain way more than we should allow them to.

We don’t diagnose diabetes and heart disease based on incomplete information, nor should we diagnose depression and psychosis before we know the facts.

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