While the world mourns the lives lost in the devastating Germanwings plane crash, media speculation over what happened has intensified. The French prosecutor earlier concluded that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had sealed himself in the cockpit in order to “destroy this plane”.
Was this an act of terrorism, the media has wondered. Was Lubitz suicidal? Did he have a previous record of depression? These are all fair questions to ask, but the coverage raises an additional issue: are all the media reports about the mental state of the pilot going to reinforce the already widespread stigma around depression and mental illness?
The Tabloid Perspective
The newspapers have already been awash with headlines such as “Killer pilot suffered from depression” (Daily Mirror), “Madman in cockpit” (The Sun) and “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?” (Daily Mail). All suggested that mental health issues played a part in the pilot’s decision.
It is worth bearing in mind that as the papers went to press there had still been no official confirmation as to whether Lubitz had previously suffered from or was suffering from depression or any other mental illness. In a statement, the chief executive of Lufthansa, Carsten Spohr, confirmed only that during Lubitz’s training, six years prior to the crash, there had been a brief interruption.
This sort of interruption is not uncommon. Spohr neither offered a reason nor discussed whether this might have contributed to the events of March 24. The source of the reports that the co-pilot was severely depressed during that period is the German tabloid newspaper Bild, but it has been widely assumed to be true.
Whether or not this turns out to be the case, The Sun already seems to be suggesting that Lubitz crashed the plane because he was a “madman”. Does this mean we should worry that all people who suffer from mental illness are capable of such acts? Are people who have been depressed in the past unsafe to fly planes? Are they more likely to commit acts of terrorism? The awkward reality is that there is not necessarily any link between historic depression and a tragedy like this one.
The Track Record
It is important to point out that the poor headlines quoted are not indicative of how all newspapers covered the story. The front pages of the Guardian and the Financial Times both stuck to simple factual headlines and avoided speculation about the mental health of the pilot. The Independent used an attention-grabbing headline “Killer in the cockpit” but its reporting was straight.
Unfortunately the papers that were less responsible are the ones that most people read. And it is certainly not the first example of our media using mental illness to reach highly speculative conclusions. In 2013 The Sun attracted criticism when it published the headline, “1,200 killed by mental patients“.
When you read the article, it became clear that criminals with mental-health conditions had gone on to commit violent crimes due to failings in the mental-health support system. This was not something apparent in the headline, and neither was the fact that the deaths were over a period of ten years and the figures had stayed broadly the same for decades. Numerous critics also made the point that the article reinforced stigma against people with mental health problems.
At the University of Aberdeen, we examined the media portrayal of anti-depressants in UK newspapers between 2007 and 2010. The results highlighted that around a fifth of the headlines referred to a crime story, raising worrying questions about how people taking anti-depressants are portrayed. It was to hard to avoid the conclusion that the press were making associations between criminality and taking anti-depressant medication.
So what are the potential effects of the Germanwings headlines? Will other airline pilots now fear for their jobs if they have been open about any prior struggles with low mood and depression? Will others now avoid seeking treatment?
These worries will not be limited to the world of aviation. What about doctors, chief executives or teachers. The latest statistics show that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem this year. So does this mean that 25% of pilots are at risk of committing similar acts to Lubitz?
In an interview with BBC Newsbeat, Paul Farmer, the chief executive of mental health charity Mind addressed similar questions. He said:
Everyone is trying to understand what happened in this terrible tragic plane crash, but there is a real danger that a correlation is being made between depression and this act, which is overly simplistic and has no evidence attached to it all …
The impression which can be given is that somehow people with depression are dangerous, whereas there’s no evidence to suggest that’s the case. There are thousands of people who work in stressful and important jobs who battle with depression and do their jobs very well.
Farmer is spot on. Once again, the popular press has potentially done untold damage to people who suffer from mental illness. The Germanwings tragedy is bad enough without this unnecessary collateral damage.