Was mental illness a factor in the Germanwings crash?



Earlier this week, an airplane headed from Barcelona to Dusseldorf crashed into the French Alps, leaving 150 people dead. The black box recorder indicated that the copilot was left alone in the cockpit, the pilot was locked out and attempted to gain re-entry, and the flight was reprogrammed to cruise at an altitude of 100 feet, causing the plane to crash after an 8-minute descent. The evidence indicates a deliberate action on the part of the 27-year-old co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz.

With nothing to point to terrorism at this point, the investigation will include the question of whether or not the copilot suffered from a mental illness as a way of explaining his unexplainable actions. In short, was this a combination mass murder/suicide? Was there any way to predict that such an atrocity might happen? Are there measures that can be taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

Dr. Dinah Miller

Dr. Dinah Miller

In the United States, treatment with any psychotropic medication has been a reason to ground a pilot permanently. In April 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules changed such that a pilot could fly if he’d been treated for mild to moderate depression with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor after 12 months. At that time, the FAA announced a 6-month amnesty period where a pilot could come forward about a diagnosis of depression that he had not previously felt comfortable disclosing. Presumably, other countries also have rules that ground pilots for mental illness.

So far, some reports in the media indicate that the copilot was not obviously suffering from a psychiatric disorder; all those who have been interviewed for these reports have expressed shock that Lubitz might have deliberately crashed the plane.

There also has been speculation in the media that a break in the copilot’s training 6 years ago was due to depression, and the mother of a school mate reportedly said that Lubitz had been treated for depression. Finally, investigators found a doctor’s note excusing Lubitz from work. At this point, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that he was being treated for depression. Apparently, he had shredded the note and flew on Tuesday, despite the written work excuse.

Still, all discussion of the copilot’s mental state is purely speculation. The media is noted for sensationalist reporting – and in efforts to get information out quickly, the details are often confused or simply wrong, sometimes to a remarkable extent. We don’t know if the work excuse was written by a psychiatrist or another type of physician; we don’t know if it was for a psychiatric condition, cancer, or simply strep throat.

What we’ve been told is that a copilot who was cleared to fly did so despite a work excuse from a physician, he did not disclose this condition to his employer, and he crashed a plane killing 150 people.

We might assume that the pilot suffered from some type of psychic distress – whether he met criteria for a mental disorder or not, it’s not normal to kill 150 people. If the pilot did have a history of depression and was being treated at the time of this week’s flight, then we may be left with a very unsatisfactory answer.

The anti-psychiatry activists will say that psychotropic medications caused Lubitz to crash the plane. Psychiatrists will be left with no great answer with such a scenario and will be left to say that whatever treatment he was receiving, it wasn’t enough. Certainly, the physician who told Lubitz to take off from work was right: He didn’t belong in a cockpit that day. Presumably, that physician would have done more had he been aware that the patient was about to commit a mass murder.

If the copilot does have a history of depression, but his current work excuse was for an unrelated condition, we might wonder if an untreated recurrence of depression played some role in his actions. One might speculate that the copilot could have been afraid to seek care at this time, perhaps because of a fear that he would lose his vocation.

Still, major depression can hardly explain such an act, and it is unfortunate that the press has already begun to run headlines linking this man’s alleged psychiatric diagnosis to a catastrophic mass murder. Somehow, “mental illness” gets used as an endpoint explanation for why such things happen; and short of a severe psychotic delusional system, it’s a very unsatisfying answer for an unprecedented act of violence.

The facts will unfold and perhaps we’ll learn a little more. We’ll find out what condition the copilot was being treated for and whether there were other stresses going on in his personal life. But people get depressed, take antidepressants, and deal with stress all the time.


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