Germanwings plane crash: I have depression. That doesn't make me a psychopath

The coverage of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz's problems has been lazy and shockingly ignorant

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The Independent Online

I read of the Germanwings air disaster with mounting horror and sadness but then, as newspaper front pages began to appear, with increasing despair. “Depression”, screamed the headlines. The co-pilot committed suicide, taking 150 people to their deaths, because he had depression. Depression linked to mass murder. The word came up, time and time again. 

The morning the news broke, I read every newspaper and website with mounting disbelief. Man has depression, therefore he must be suicidal, and commits suicide by flying a plane directly into a cliff, killing everybody on board. Simple. Case solved – except that adding two and two to make five is not just rotten maths, it is rotten thinking and its dangerous.

That anybody could even think their way into that particular scenario let alone splash it across newspapers as if it were the truth reveals a depth of ignorance about mental illness so profound it is shocking. Using the word depression as shorthand (even for a couple of minutes, let alone a couple of hours) for the actions of a psychopath is not okay, in any context.

Did nobody anywhere stop to think, hang on, does this make sense? People with depressive illness don’t go on killing sprees. They’re too busy hiding behind their front door or summoning the energy to do the washing up. They don’t want to kill other people, they want to kill themselves, so let’s not use the word as lazy catchphrase for all mental illness. That’s rather like using the word cancer to describe all physical illnesses. There are as many forms of mental illness as there are physical.

Last year, I was in a psychiatric unit with 24 other people. Only two of us were diagnosed with depression, which left 22 people suffering from some other form of mental illness; psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, mania, bipolar, schizophrenia and so on. It has always astonished me that it is deemed acceptable to lump so many distinctive conditions under one roof and I am sure it would astonish a great many more people if physical illnesses as various as heart disease, liver disease, kidney failure, broken bones were treated in the same way.

 

Yes, there are tragic deaths linked to extreme mental disorders, but Friday’s morning papers saw the word depression twinned with murder, and suicide with mass killing; two words that were immediately encapsulated as evil.

Slowly, as the hours changed, so did the wording. By midday, Andreas Lubitz was “crazed” and the word depression had been tucked inside quotation marks to indicate that the truth might be more complex. By the next morning, he was a killer, a psychopath with a narcissistic personality disorder so pronounced and a need for attention so profound, that he wanted to be “remembered forever” and thought nothing of killing people in order to stay frozen in our memories. 

Well, you know, the news always changes as evidence emerges, so what’s all the fuss about? Well here’s the fuss. In those early headlines, depression was once again inextricably linked with stigma but now in a form more extreme than ever. And there, all mixed up in a flurry of supposition, was shame and blame. It was like watching five years on fast rewind, undoing all the sterling work done by mental health charities to normalise mental illness and free it from past demons.

The Twitter timeline was a litany of despair from those with depression, terrified that their illness would once again be hallmarked by shame. There were comments that it is right not to reveal depression to work colleagues, or even friends and family, because it is evidence of mental instability.

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A stele in memory of the victims of the Germanwings Airbus A320 crash is pictured in the small village of Le Vernet, French Alps, near the site where a Airbus A320 crashed on 24 March

I am beginning to bore even myself with these words. Depression is an illness and if you are too ashamed to admit to a severe illness, you cannot get treatment for it, which means the more unwell you are likely to become. And, as the illness deepens, the more likely it is that suicide becomes a possibility. So headlines linking depression with murder, and thus implying some kind of insanity, are not helpful. As for those who commit suicide, they almost always commit it alone. For a start, they do not want anybody to stop them and the shame around suicide is enormous, so they want no attention.

Having a severe depressive disorder means that I tend to hang out with other people who have the illness, generally for comfort and understanding. We can talk openly – even that word carries its burden of shame – about the way we feel, which may be suicidal. The conversation always revolves around methods that cause the least possible damage to other people (emotional repercussions aside) and chucking yourself under a train is generally considered unacceptable because of the driver and catastrophic post-traumatic stress.

In those early headlines was another cause for despair – a reverting to the stereotypical view of suicide as the most extreme form of selfishness and, even, evil. That reveals yet more profound ignorance, this time about the true nature of suicide. Nobody with a depressive illness wants to die; they want the intolerable pain to stop. It is not death they seek, but peace. The more suicide is stigmatised, the less people feel able to seek help. It is a subject of such overwhelming shame that it is never described in plain language, as a clinical symptom of depression (suicidal ideation as it is known) just as a high temperature is a clinical symptom of pneumonia. It is not a question of shame, but a question of seeking urgent medical treatment.

Words are powerful, we should be careful with them. I’m not in the least PC and cheerfully admit to being what my daughter describes as “odd but OK”, but if we’re going to hurl words around, let’s get them as right as we can. Depression is an illness, suicide a symptom and neither has a place in horror stories.

Sally Brampton is the author of 'Shoot the Damn Dog: A Memoir of Depression'

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