On March 24, Germanwings Flight 9525 began an unscheduled descent over the the French Alps. The pilot was locked out of the cabin. He slammed his fists against the door, screaming for co-pilot Andreas Lubitz to let him in and straighten out the plane.
Lubitz never responded.
At 10:41 CET, the plane smashed into the ground, killing all 150 passengers. The tragedy quickly ignited a firestorm of attention around the world, and it took less than a day for the media to dig up Lubitz’ mental health history and begin to point fingers.
Lubitz was suicidal at one point in his life. He took antidepressants and, before the crash, was visiting with a psychiatrist to treat depression and anxiety. In short, Lubitz was not a mentally “healthy” person. And the media latched onto that. They began to blame depression.
It was all anyone seemed to talk about. Blogs, newspaper columns and even official reports discussed how depression was the cause of the crash. Talking heads on CNN and NBC debated whether the crash could have been prevented with proper psychological attention, and a common phrase began to emerge — “this could have been stopped.”
“This could have been stopped if airplane companies screened for mental health. This could have been prevented if pilots showing signs of depression had their licenses suspended. This could have been stopped if we had regulated mental health.”
There is one exceptionally worrisome flaw in this stream of logic. How do you go about regulating mental illness? Who gets to define what “stable” and “unstable” looks like? How does testing occur? The truth of the matter is that there isn’t an easy way to define depression or regulate mental illnesses. And the moment we start attempting to do so, we begin to create a problem for our society.
As reported by the CDC, one in every 10 Americans takes antidepressants. That means that at least one tenth of our society is depressed. And that’s okay. Yes, there are individual cases of depression taking a nasty turn. Some depressed people have been known to kill their classmates, like Aaron Ybarra in Seattle last June. Some suicidal people have been known to lash out, to hurt themselves, to hurt others. And Lubitz, a depressed and lonely man, took 150 lives by crashing that plane.
But those single actions don’t speak for the majority of those who struggle with mental illness. Depressed people create art and act in movies and write books. They are doctors and truck drivers, teachers and politicians. They are parents and siblings and friends. They fight against their own emotions, and they don’t just survive — they thrive. Refusing jobs to those who are defined as “mentally ill”
We cannot not reduce depressed people to a generality. We cannot act like every depressed person will react the same. Because those who are suffering from depression are not powerless, they are not monsters and they are not a danger to those around them. They are people, just like anyone else, and they will continue to live beautiful lives despite the weight of that depression.
It’s not mental illness that causes tragedies like the crash of Germanwings Flight 9252. We can’t blame depression for that crash. It was a strange, individual, extremely personal tragedy — the type that can’t be prevented because depression can’t be prevented.
It’s impossible to keep depression from happening. Instead, we need to adapt. We need to learn how to both accept depression and fight against it. That doesn’t happen with regulation. That happens by treating depression as yet another disease that we will fight against as a society.
Because in the end, we can’t beat depression with rules and tests. We can only beat it with love, with compassion and with understanding.