Depression, flight 9525 and the media – stigma sticks

extra-extra-news2

“Killer pilot suffered from depression.”

“Depressed German deliberately flew into mountain.”

“Suicide pilot had a long history of depression – why on earth was he allowed to fly?”

By now you’d have to have been trapped deep in the wilderness in a cave guarded by angry honey badgers not to know that Andreas Lubitz – the Germanwings pilot responsible for last week’s tragic plane crash – had previously suffered from a mental illness. These tabloid headlines build a very simple equation for the public masses clamouring to know how anyone could carry out such a monstrous act – depression equals danger.

This isn’t just irresponsible and insensitive reporting – it’s a fantastic way to try and wipe out years of toil against mental illness stigma, through the scribble of a pen. So far all we know about Lubitz is that the police found torn up sick notes in his flat and that he was unwell in 2009 with something that may or may not have been depression. What has this meant to the papers? That 150 plane passengers were murdered by a mental illness.

One in five people will endure clinical depression at some point in their lives (I strongly believe this figure could be much higher – stigma makes many hide their illness). That’s around 350 million depressives worldwide. One of them has crashed a plane which is, obviously, horrific. That doesn’t mean everyone else suffering from the illness is a potentially murderous risk to the safety of the public at large – we mustn’t confuse a terrible, debilitating mental health condition with motive to do harm.

I can’t, and I won’t, speculate on why this man took down a plane full of innocent human beings. The truth is we’ll probably never know what was behind his actions. Did something slip through the net during his health check-up? Don’t know. Was he actually supposed to be signed off work sick? No idea. Was he harbouring secret mass murder plots hatched between himself and his pet hedgehog, Wolfgang? I know more about nuclear fission than I do this subject. What I do know, however, is that massive headlines equating past experience of mental illness with colossal risk is misleading and dangerous. In the case of depression, stigma literally costs lives.

I hated listening to the news when I was clinically depressed a few years ago. Not that I particularly enjoy the relentless barrage of negativity now, but a few years ago when I was poorly the radio bulletins literally felt like a physical assault on my ears. I’d hear tales of misery from war-torn countries and wonder what the point of living in such a terrible world was. I’d see the story about the mentally ill mother who killed herself and her two children and feel the white-hot creep of terror that my illness might turn me into someone like that. If something like this had hit the headlines while I was in the throes of self-esteem-eroding, guilt-soaked and paranoia-laden mental illness I know I would have really struggled. People with depression can already feel (totally illogically) that they’re bad people, a danger to society or just generally incapable of carrying out the simplest of tasks without cocking it up. When they see these darkest fears confirmed in bold newspaper print, instead of laughing it off as bad journalism they may well believe it and just sink further into self doubt.

I have many friends and family members that have lived through depression and currently hold down all kinds of positions of responsibility. They’re doctors, teachers, support workers, entrepreneurs and CEOs. I work in a children’s centre. We’re all fantastic at our jobs.

I don’t know what the protocol for pilots that are in the middle of mental health treatment is – of course the assessment for those in charge of safely transporting us across the skies should be rigorous and examined on a case-by-case basis. Should anyone that’s currently suffering from severe depression with brain fog, poor concentration, exhaustion, back pain and all it’s other varied symptoms be flying a plane? Of course not. Clinical depression is a physical illness too – I could barely safely drive a car when I was at my worst, let alone a plane. But there’s a vast difference between responsible reporting about a man who was suffering from an ‘unspecified illness’ who perhaps should have been signed off sick, to making a broad and generalised link between someone having ‘a history of depression’ and the idea that they shouldn’t have been in employment.

People make full recoveries from depression all the time. It’s actually likely that they go on to become healthier, more useful individuals than those never bitten by the black dog – facing the future with a new perspective and better ways to manage stress. I never really paid much attention to my health before I became depressed – now I’m uncompromising about looking after myself, and this has a positive ripple effect across my life, relationships and capability in the workplace.

Linking experience of depression with risk and danger isn’t just irresponsible, it doesn’t make any sense. Someone in full remission from cancer wouldn’t be expected to taper their career and general life expectations – depression is no different. The last twenty years or so have seen a surge in public acceptance of depression as what it is – a horrible and indiscriminate illness that can affect anyone, anywhere, that you can completely recover from – but judging by this last week’s press, we still have a long way to go.

Should we talk about suicide as ‘freedom’?

robin williams

Yep, that’s right, I used the S word. I want to talk about that most scandalous of taboos, the one only discussed in hushed voices in darkened corners in the wake of tragedy – that of taking one’s own life. Wilfully and deliberately choosing to take an early exit from earthly existence in favour of whatever might be waiting after the human body expires, as beloved actor Robin Williams so sadly did on Sunday.

As fans began to mourn the loss of one of the comedy world’s brightest lights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tweeted a well-known image of Disney’s Aladdin wrapped in an embrace with Williams’ hilariously voiced Genie, alongside a simple message: ‘Genie, you’re free.’

The emotional farewell hug, the starry-sky backdrop, the sense of hope and liberation – it seemed a poignant and fitting tribute, on the surface at least. But the viral tweet – while well intentioned, shared by over 300,000 people and viewed by countless others – has suicide prevention experts worried, and rightly so. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has warned that the image violates well-established public health standards for how we talk about suicide. They’re concerned that romanticising Williams’ death risks contagion of vulnerable children and adults – meaning the phenomenon of ‘copy-cat suicide’ where media coverage of one death can end up encouraging others already contemplating suicide to take that final leap.

The written implication that Williams’ death meant freedom from his suffering paints suicide in far too celebratory a light, said Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the foundation. And let’s face it, anyone that’s dealing with persistent suicidal thoughts, who may already have made plans to terminate their own life, really doesn’t need much of a trigger to put these plans into action. I don’t believe that the Jumanji star’s untimely demise will have people lining up to throw themselves off bridges, but glorifying his release from a turbulent life as ‘freedom’ is certainly unhelpful – especially considering his status as a well loved and highly respected celebrity.

Rather than any intentional insensitivity or ignorance on the part of those that initiated this social media storm, what this highlights more than anything is the thorny, delicate and somewhat confusing nature of the public discourse we have when it comes to suicide. For those facing terminal illness, rapid degeneration of mind and body, chronic pain and relentless misery, ending life may actually represent freedom and liberation. I’m pro choice when it comes to suicide and the right to make a dignified exit from a life that, for whatever reason, is sliding into an intolerable abyss that really isn’t going to improve. But depression doesn’t have to be a life sentence – even though it seems that way when you’re in the throes of a bad episode – and that’s why we need to be so careful when considering those at their wits end. Suicide may seem like the only viable option when the black dog bites, but many people facing severe depression and thoughts of harming themselves can and will go on to make a full recovery. This is the optimistic and hopeful message we need to be spreading when it comes to mental illness.

We need to focus on the life and works of a fantastically talented and ferociously hard-working creative, whose bright light was extinguished far too soon, rather than romanticising his death as anything other than incredibly sad and tragic. Thanks for the laughter, Robin, and may you rest in peace.