Question Andreas Lubitz's mental stability, but stop demonising the depressed

Depression should not be conflated with psychopathy or seen as a signal for murderous actions further down the line

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The Independent Online

The fight against mental health discrimination took a step forward last week with a call for the abolishment of head-clutching images to illustrate stories about depression, only to take two steps back this morning, with the coverage of Andreas Lubitz's mental stability.

'WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?' one front page screamed, omitting the obvious answer that it was because he was a qualified pilot.

A Lufthansa spokesperson yesterday confirmed that Lubitz "passed all the subsequent tests and checks with flying colours" and that "his flying abilities were flawless," but the charge seemed to be that anyone who has experienced depression is unfit for a career involving responsibility.

There is no doubt that Lubitz should not have been in the cockpit. The airline's reporting system, whereby crew can report their own or others' problems without fear of being punished, failed with utterly tragic consequences and must be revisited. Holes were also exposed in its cockpit-locking safety protocol and pilots must not be allowed to fly alone. But sweeping links between depression and mass murder have a horribly stigmatising effect.

Depression affects millions of people and is a complex and varied illness, not one that should be conflated with psychopathy or seen as a signal for murderous actions further down the line.

Winston Churchill wrote 'to keep the black dog of depression at bay', while Labour MP John Woodcock in 2013 very humbly wrote about his experience of depression, and how he didn't think it was a 'big deal' professionally or required him to step down. They both enjoyed successful careers.

"The terrible loss of life in the Germanwings plane crash is tragic, and we send our deepest sympathies to the families," a spokesperson for Time To Change said. "Whilst the full facts are still emerging, there has been widespread media reporting speculating about the link with the pilot’s history of depression, which has been overly simplistic.

"Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate - but assumptions about risk shouldn't be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades  and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.

"Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly."

Attaching stigma to depression will only make it easier for mental instabilities like that apparently suffered by Lubitz more difficult to spot. We must accept depression as a problem, stop treating people who are blighted by it like unexploded bombs, and seek to better understand it to prevent this ever happening again.