No Right Answer
The media coverage behind March 24th Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash has spotlighted the mainstream media’s problematic perspective on a social issue that merits discussion outside major tragedies: mental illness.
Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz allegedly flew Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps, killing 150 people in total. According to leaked audio from the flight’s black box, Capt. Patrick Sondenheimer screamed, "For God's sake, open the door!"; Lubitz used the anti-terror lock on the cockpit door to intentionally prevent the captain from reentering. In addition, investigators found Lubitz’s ripped up medical leave notes from the day of the plane crash and antidepressants, and Le Parisien reported Lubitz received injections of antipsychotic medication in 2010, confirming Lubitz suffered from a mental illness and his intention to keep it hidden.
Unfortunately, the Germanwings crash this past week sheds light on the media’s harsh portrayal of mental illness. Headlines included inflammatory language as “killer co-pilot”, “co-pilot had dreams about plane crashing”, and “Killer co-pilot was an ‘insecure control freak’”, and featured lines like “The fiancée of unhinged pilot Andreas Lubitz says she could be carrying the killer’s child…” Nothing can diminish the lives that were lost in the crash, and Lubitz’s actions inevitably lead to the deaths of many innocent people. Yet to put complete blame on Lubitz due to his mental illness only demonizes others who suffer from the same reality. Mental illness is no more the sufferer’s fault than other physical ailments, and Lubitz, as a sufferer, should be treated with at least some dignity.
French and German investigators’ first line of inquiry delves into the apparent depression Lubitz hid from his employers. Those with mental illness hide their condition from others due to external judgment, personal embarrassment, and/or fear of losing employment, all of which could have played out in Lubitz’s concealment. An official with Lufthansa, the parent company of Germanwings, said that the exam only tests physical health. The same official also said that if Lubitz were depressed, he would have had to self-report his illness, which seems difficult to imagine when so much is at stake.
Social and scientific advances in recent years paved changes in regulations to allow those who suffer from mild depression to stay on the job while on antidepressants in the hope that pilots would come forward and seek treatment. However, in light of the recent tragedy, a balance must exist between the disclosure of possible health-related liabilities and the right of privacy, especially when prospects of employment are at risk. Implementing mandatory disclosure of mental illness is a heavy intrusion on personal privacy, but self-reporting relies on pilots to ignore the possibility of unemployment and to concede personal weakness.
Pilots’ health issues are a personal matter, but so are the hundreds of lives pilots are accountable for. Passengers place immense trust in airlines and in pilots to provide the safest flight possible. Aside from enforcement, the only solutions seem to be incentive-based. Airlines and employers in general should encourage pilots to seek treatment and assure them that all options must be exhausted before termination can be considered. In this classic safety vs. privacy issue, there are no perfect solutions. We can only ask for sympathy from the press, compassion from employers, and strength from mental illness sufferers.
- Kathy Dimaya