Naming Mental Health as the Cause for Disaster means a Reversal of Gains to Reduce Stigma

I am almost at a loss for words when I see the headlines in relation to Andreas Lubitz and the tragedy of Germanwings 4U9525. The horror is unbearable, but the press coverage surrounding the story has been abhorrent. I am scared to write this post as I do not want my words to detract from the pain that the families involved must be feeling…and I am sure I will not cover this issue as well as @MentalHealthCop or @BlurtAlerts… but I must share my thoughts.

Relating this story back to my own PhD research in supporting health professionals in psychological distress, this story should remind us all that high profile jobs in high pressure environments placed in the public eye can produce adverse health problems. Many people have been questioning what ‘Burnout’ actually is. For clarity I will define this as follows:

Burnout is a syndrome of emotional exhaustion. Burnout has been defined by Maslach as a syndrome consisting of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, negative thinking towards others and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment (Maslach, 1986, Maslach, 1996).

Moving on to depression:

“Depression is a common, disabling disorder characterized by a period of at least two weeks in which a person loses pleasure in nearly all activities and/or exhibits a depressed mood“(Stewart et al, 2004;19).

Symptoms of major depression include feelings of sadness and hopelessness, diminished pleasure, changes in weight, changes in sleep patterns, lack of interest in life, chronic fatigue, a sense of worthlessness or guilt, muddled thinking and poor decision making (APA, 2013).

Sadly depression can affect all areas of a persons life, and yes some of those with depression will die by suicide. However, the headlines seemingly suggest that depression is the cause of this ‘Murder’. It will not be the only cause of this tragedy, and nothing is confirmed as yet. It frightens me to think that these assumptions are coming up so thick and fast before the facts are known. This highlights to me the stigma still apparent and surfacing in the wake of fear.

We do not know all of the facts, perhaps Andreas dissociated from everything around him and any decisions he may have been making, perhaps this is something completely unrelated. Whatever happened, the headlines of this story are damaging and risk the reversal of any progress we have made in reducing stigma.

Some news companies are scaremongering and stating that nobody with depression should be allowed to fly a plane. This at least makes a change from them saying that all those with depression are ‘fit to work and lazy’ – but I digress.

This idea is ridiculous as those with mental health issues can achieve great things… remember 1 in 4??? Do we get rid of 1/4 of our pilots?

What if our pilots have a headache? what if they have a brain tumor? what if they have a seizure whilst in flight? – the ridiculous parodies may continue…

I was hoping this would get people talking about what can be done to support those in *potential* psychological distress in order to improve overall services, instead it has led to an immediate reaction of fear. I am hoping the long term story will be a different one.

American Psychological Association (APA) (2013) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (V) American Psychiatric Association, Washington, DC (2013)

Maslach C, Jackson SE. Maslach Burnout Inventory Manual, 2nd edn. Palo Alto (CA): Consulting Psychologists Press Inc; 1986.

Maslach, C Jackson, S Leiter, M, Schaufeli, W, Schwab, R (1996) MBI: The Maslach Burnout Inventory: Manual. Consulting Psychologists Press, Palo Alto (1996)

Stewart Donna ; Gucciardi Enza ; Grace Sherry (2004) Depression BMC Women’s Health, 2004, Vol.4(Suppl+1), p.S19

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