The Deadly Stigma of Mental Illness – from TSOD R&D

The Deadly Stigma of Mental Illness – from TSOD R&D

In the wake of what appears to be a tragic mental breakdown by one of their pilots, Germanwings is becoming aware of the deadly stigma of mental illness.

Catching mental illness begins with removing its stigma

Catching mental illness begins with removing its stigma

Flight 4U 9525 crashed into the French Alps in late March when co-pilot Andreas Lubitz is believed to have locked the pilot out of the cockpit.  Ten minutes later the plane slammed into a mountain killing all 150 on board.  Informed speculation was that Lubitz suffered from depression and committed this suicide-murder.  If only Germanwings or parent company Lufthansa had known.

If only they’d known.

Pilots, members of the military, judges, cops, teachers, bus drivers, heavy equipment operators and any number of others hold the lives of many in their hands.  Their mental stability is paramount but the method of knowing when something is wrong is less than an exact science.

Self-reporting of mental aberration is the most direct route to detecting trouble and that is the avenue of choice for airlines but let’s be honest, would you tell your boss you’re having suicidal or homicidal thoughts?  Of course not.

Psychological tests are administered every now and again for pilots but not even annually.

Observations by coworkers: flight attendants, other pilots and support staff are encouraged but disdain for ratting-out a colleague discourages reporting.

The common denominator of failure is the stigma connected with frequent testing, accurate self-reporting and regular observational accounts.  But the pain of stigma pales in comparison with the tragedies of Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building* or this week’s crash in the French Alps.

Of all the progress society has made in accepting differences, in sex, in race, in physical challenge, the most difficult difference to accept – even in one’s self – is the difference of mental illness.  To admit it – even the suspicion of it – can dramatically change the way people look at you – forever.  This is not to say that mental illness is incurable or un-treatable.  It is to say that it is not as easily understood as non-mental differences. 

The stigma must die or people will.  How though?

Certainly a recipe of assessment approaches is needed to prevent such tragedies as the Germanwings crash but most important to the process and the healing of many with mental illness is a better understanding of the disease.  As good military intelligence is worth a thousand boots on the ground so mental health is to preventing mass murder at the hands of the deranged.  Yet, even as the world becomes more complicated and more stressful, those with mental illness are becoming less willing to seek help because of cost, because they think the problem will go away on its own, because they believe the science of  psychiatry is bunk and because they fear the stigma.  Federal spending for treatment could increase but it is in line with mental health care spending in other developed countries.  What is missing is a serious and sustained effort to de-stigmatize mental illness.  A media campaign, secondary and post-secondary (perhaps even elementary) courses and community support programs are needed immediately.

Tim Sharp

Tim Sharp is the director of curriculum for, a lecturer at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, a corporate trainer and MBTI practitioner.

*Timothy McVeigh refused an insanity defense saying the approach would weaken his statement against the government.


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