Germanwings tragedy reveals lack of understanding about mental illness

My fear is that this shallow examination of the incident will lead to a destructive response in workplaces.

Germanwings tragedy reveals lack of understanding about mental illness

In the days following the tragic Germanwings disaster, where it appears that Co-Pilot Andreas Lubitz committed mass murder by steering his airliner into the French Alps, authorities have been quick to release their discovery that he suffered from depression and may have hidden this illness from his employer.

In response to these revelations, media worldwide have been quick to conclude that depression was the reason for the vile act, enabling them to neatly conclude their news cycle and move on. My fear is that this shallow examination of the incident will lead to a destructive response in workplaces, resulting in people with various forms of mental illness being further stigmatised and far less likely to reveal their struggle or to seek help.

SANE Australia records the incidence of mental illness in the Australian community at around 20% of the population every year, with depression making up approximately 6% of that figure. Beyond Blue estimate that in any one year, around 1 million Australian adults have depression, and over 2 million have anxiety.

The most compelling factor in these statistics is are the typical behaviours associated with these illnesses. In the case of depression, the typical presenting behaviours include

  • withdrawing from social engagement, including distancing oneself from family and close friends
  • not getting things done at work or school
  • retreating to alcohol and sedatives as a coping mechanism
  • inability to focus or concentrate

Research has shown no reliable links between depression and the act of physically harming other people. What is well accepted is that sufferers of depression are far more likely to self-harm. The alleged crime committed by Lubitz, which resulted in the deaths of 149 innocent victims was therefore not an act likely to have been driven from depression. He may have suffered from other, undiagnosed (or at this time unreported) disorders, but to attribute this crime to depression is a lazy and unhelpful response. Who knows what evil or tragic madness beset this man and drove him to do something so unthinkable?

If anything constructive can emerge from this tragedy, then surely it is to begin to normalise the conversation about the most common forms of mental illness – depression and anxiety.

Only once we accept that depression and anxiety are normal workplace issues that need to be integrated into our management systems and leadership development programs, will we begin to offer appropriate support.

Here is a comparison to what ‘normal’ should look like. Many of us have been approached by an employee and advised that they have been diagnosed with cancer of some kind. Others will know first-hand of the fear of this diagnosis when confronted with it. I don’t know of any leader, when faced with this grim news, who has not thrown their full support around their employee and done whatever they can to assist. Indeed, I know of many stories of support that are truly inspirational. This year in Australia, approximately 130,000 people will be diagnosed with cancer. At the same time (based on SANE figures) more than one million Australians will experience depression and more than three million will experience an anxiety disorder. Most will suffer in silence and many will be targeted for disciplinary action from their employers who fail to recognise the signs and who do not have workplace programs and education in place to assist in constructively discussing this issue. Posters on the lunch room wall advertising Employee Assistance Programs are a start, but are no substitute for taking a genuine interest in employees and creating a supportive environment where dialogue on mental illness can occur.

In the absence of education and support, please keep a careful eye out in workplaces over the coming weeks for uninformed statements being made about depression and other mental illness in relation to the Germanwings tragedy.

If you are experiencing symptoms described in this article and wish to seek support, please call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or the SANE Helpline on 1800 18 SANE. Online chat with a SANE Helpline advisor is available Mon –Fri between 9:00am and 5:00pm AEST by visiting www.sane.org