Death, mental health and Andreas Lubitz

My first reaction to the news of last week’s aeroplane crash was, of course, horror. Millions of people reacted in a similar way. For the friends and relatives of those killed, the reaction was naturally more intense. It is hard to imagine what they are going through, as for all those bereaved suddenly and without explanation.

The news that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately crashed the plane added a further level of stunned horror. In such a situation, some will naturally seek to understand, others to blame, others to prevent such incidents occurring in future.

Some airlines have said that they will change procedures so that no pilot can lock themselves in and operate the plane alone. While I can’t claim to know much about airline procedures, that seems to be a sensible decision.

In all this discussion, we seem to have forgotten just how rare such incidents are. I mean no disrespect to the dead and bereaved when I say that we should accord just as much respect to the hundreds of people killed every year in British road accidents and of course to the millions around the world who die of hunger and preventable diseases.

We have a hierarchy of death. When someone dies in an unusual way, we ask how to prevent it in future. When death occurs in a way we find routine, we simply allow the routine to continue. Questions of road safety, let alone global hunger, are rarely addressed as urgent questions.

Much of the media reaction to the tragedy in the Alps has been very sensational. But it is far worse than this. In seeking to understand, to blame or to sell newspapers, they have talked of the co-pilot’s mental health in a way that demonises everybody with mental health problems.

It is years since British newspapers produced such prejudiced front page headlines about mental health as we have seen over the last few days.

It has been suggested that Andreas Lubitz should not have been allowed to fly because he was depressed. Let’s be clear: the overwhelming majority of people with depression and other mental health problems will never kill anyone. They are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others. The vast majority of people who kill themselves do not kill others with them. Behaviour such as Lubitz’s is very, very rare.

There are some who want to prevent people with mental health problems from holding responsible jobs, or jobs at all. Of course some people with mental ill-health are not able to work. They are as entitled to society’s support and respect as anyone else. Many other people with mental health problems (myself included) have jobs. There are so many of us that much of society would collapse if we were all prevented from working.

Certain newspaper editors and columnists seem to think that people with mental health problems should not be allowed to work, but those same editors and columnists would be the first to complain if such people received benefits as a result of giving up their work.

People with mental health problems are not some distant and scary group. They are people we meet at work, pass in the street, chat to after church. They are people who serve us in cafes and shops, drive our buses, teach our children, treat us when we are sick, preach to us on Sundays and yes, work as aeroplane pilots.

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