TACKLING MENTAL HEALTH – NOW OR NEVER

by Faizal Nor Izham

In the aftermath of the Germanwings crash, Britain’s call to take mental health more seriously has never been more relevant. German pilot Andreas Lubitzmade headlines for killing himself and 149 others in a plane crash after reportedly going through a bout of depression (which he is said to have suffered from since 2009). Although the perpetrator of the March 24th crash was a non-Briton, this nevertheless makes the issue of mental health more urgent no matter which part of the world you’re from.

Tackling mental health is met with stigma across cultures. Terms to describe individuals are often derogatory, if not downright offensive — words like ‘loony’ and ‘nutter’ will often be tossed around a little too casually. Despite calls from celebrities such as Stephen Fry to take the matter more seriously — Fry has long made his battle with bipolar disorder public — efforts to combat the stigma in the public sphere will always be a tricky issue.

Arguably, removing stigma and prejudice is one thing, but the circumstances surrounding Andreas Lubitz must also be taken into consideration. After the crash, his tablet was searched and his browser history evaluated by authorities —investigations found that he had apparently planned his suicide in advance. Lubitz had browsed the Internet for suicide methods and cockpit door-security until the day before the flight itself.

Tackling mental health is met with stigma across cultures.

Subsequent voice recordings during the flight had recorded Lubitz repeatedly telling his captain Patrick Sondheimer to go to the toilet. He then locked him out of the cabin and went on to send the plane into a fast decline into the French Alps, dropping about 3,000 feet a minute for about eight minutes. As a result, aviation authorities in Canada, New Zealand, and Germany have since implemented new regulations which require two authorised personnel to be present in the cockpit at all times. Safety agencies in the European Union have also recommended similar measures to be introduced.

(© Guardian)

Such safety precautions are fine and all, but what about the root cause of the pilot’s problems itself? The Daily Mail infamously came under fire recently after its screaming headline which questioned why an individual with mental health problems was allowed to pilot a commercial aircraft in the first place. It reinforces the type of stigma long-associated with mental health.

Should a person battling mental health problems be barred from employment? Or should he/she be restricted only from certain types of jobs which carry a significant amount of responsibility? Where can the line be drawn and what measures can governments carry out to enforce it? The solution is not as straightforward as it may appear on paper, and the dilemma hinges in tackling the stigma behind mental health patients.

The solution here is empathy. One of the possible motivators for Lubitz’s actions was a fear of being removed from his duties as a result of his condition, which in itself stems from this stigma. One could argue that it was not the depression alone that led to his actions, but the fact that he may have found little alternative in dealing with his problems. Or no-one else to confide in.

(© cv-healthcare)

The problem perhaps stems from a lack of humanity in our approach towards those with these problems. In a world where racism, sexism and classism are often confronted head-on, the prejudice towards mental health patients remains unchallenged. Very rarely do you see others willingly standing up for their dignity in the same manner. After all, it is still rare for someone to openly admit to their problems, let alone have others stand up for them when doing so. Perhaps it’s time for the world at large to let them know that there are others who are willing to listen and support.

Following the crash, German police issued a statement claiming that Lubitz had been hiding an unspecified existing illness from his employer, according to German newspaper Bild. Prosecutors said seized medical documents, such as sick notes from Lubitz’s home, indicated “an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment.” Lubitz also flew despite having a certificate stating he was not ready to work. On March 28th, authorities searched his house again, discovering evidence that he was taking prescription drugs for a psychosomatic illness.

In a world where racism, sexism and classism are often confronted head-on, the prejudice towards mental health patients remains unchallenged.

Medical records stated that he was taking medication for depression, anxiety, and panic attacks, which allegedly included an antidepressant as well as Lorazepam. The latter is a tranquiliser that can have dangerous side effects (it is typically prescribed to treat anxiety by slowing activity in the brain to allow for relaxation). Documents made available to investigators also reported that Lubitz was in a car crash in late 2014 and had subsequently complained of trauma and vision problems. He had also reportedly seen at least five doctors prior to the crash, including a sleep specialist, apparently in an effort to avoid losing his pilot’s license due to his medical issues.

All this seems to indicate that keeping an eye out for employees with mental health issues in certain industries is not altogether an unwise decision. Nevertheless, this often also serves to reinforce the stigma against those with such problems to begin with. Perhaps now would be an ideal time to truly address the issue with a little more empathy and understanding, regardless of the elephant in the middle of the room.

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