The Germanwings tragedy. A personal reflection on mental health problems…

The media are reporting that the recent crash of Germanwings flight 4U92525 was a deliberate act by the co-pilot.

Can this be so? Is this possible?

Yes.

I know no more than you about what happened, or the mental state of the co-pilot. There’s no doubt that similar incidents in the past were related to the mental illness of the pilot. There have been too many ‘single vehicle road traffic collisions’ where it’s abundantly clear that the driver of the car deliberately steered the vehicle towards the support of a bridge in a clear, successful suicide attempt.

Mental illness is a disease of the functioning of the mind; whether it’s a disease of the brain is uncertain. It’s all too common; estimates suggest that up to 1 in 10 women will suffer an episode of depression, as will 1 in 25 men.

Mental illness carries a gross stigma, the idea that people can snap out of it, think themselves out of it. If you have a broken leg we don’t expect you to ‘snap out of it’, we offer sympathy and the understanding that it will take time to make a full functional recovery.

A century and more ago, Sigmund Freud suggested a three-part theory of the mind, of the psyche. He envisaged the Id as the primal source of base instincts, and the Super-Ego as the moral controller. Between these two opposing forces, the Ego appears, the personality which we present to the world.

Freud’s student and biographer Ernest Jones adapted the original terms, translating, transferring them into Latin. Das Es, (the it) became the Id, das Über Ich (over me) became the Super-Ego, and what we are, das Ich (the me, the I) was the Ego—‘I am’.

Many of Freud’s ideas are disputed and ridiculed today, but I really like the concept of the Id and the Super-Ego fighting for the control, the supremacy, of my mind, of my Ego.

I declare an interest—you’ve surely guessed—in that I had a major episode of ‘mid-life crisis’, a euphemism for major depression, a few years ago. My GP, very much to my surprise, was non-judgemental and supportive. He said that NHS therapy would take months. He arranged a private consultation with a shrink who advised cognitive behavioural therapy.

Today, I like to think that I’m recovered from this illness—you might well not agree. I am now the same person that I once was, yet I am a different person. In this fight, my Id is winning, my basic, real instincts are no longer repressed. I can see now how my thinking was disturbed, altered; and how I could I have offended so many close to me. But I wasn’t aware of this then. I wasn’t, in retrospect, anyway rational. And the functioning of the mind in the grip of depression is, as I now see it, scary, frightening, unreal and disturbing.

I cannot emphasise this enough; the mind of the depressed is non-rational, it doesn’t see things the way the rest of us do, it will not respond, it cannot respond, in a way that we regard as normal.

Mental illness, including depression, carries a heavy burden in our society. Those so afflicted are stigmatised, seen as outcasts. And it’s easy enough for such sufferers to mask their problems, to present a face of normality to the world, and to any assessors.

Post natal depression isn’t that uncommon. How can it be that a woman who has carried a child for nine months can turn round and murder her infant, the product of her body? Only she could have carried this child, yet she ‘chooses’ to kill it? How can this be?

In a mental illness, your mind is broken, it does nor function normally, no more than your leg leg does if you have broken it. If you are sick you need comfort, sympathy, support and understanding to help you to recovery. You do not not need to be patronised.

Air travel is unquestionably safer than anything else. Could a similar tragedy, involving the deaths of so many innocents, be avoidable in the future?

Sadly, no. Until society at large recognises the extent of mental illness, the real stigma that it carries, and the way it alters the normal functioning of the mind, until such illness is seen in the same light as any other, a similar disaster is entirely possible.

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  • salmonofdata

    I don’t really think that this is an appropriate topic to conflate with the stigmatization of mental health issues. The people who need comfort, sympathy and support are the relatives of the victims of Andreas Lubitz, the mass murderer. You have no evidence whatsoever that Mr Lubitz suffered from any health issues.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I added the stigma headline. I have tweaked it to be more neutral. We don’t know the whole story but it is clear that the pilot snapped. In my view Korhomme is fair to compare it to car crashes and suicide by car.

  • Granni Trixie

    Korhomme

    Thank you for ‘sharing’ your experience to make real something which tends to stay under the radar of public discourse. Might I add something about eating disorders as there is not enough recognition that they are a manifestation of mental conditions, with a high fatality rate. I have no personal experience to draw on but have educated myself because I know families dealing with it. A key factor in tackling the problem at an early stage seems to be the attitude and ignorance of GPs. It’s an uphill battle.

  • Korhomme

    You are entirely correct, I do not know what happened. I have surmised, considered, thought about, what seems to have occurred.

    I throw the question back to you; how else can you explain what happened, if not a result of mental illness?

  • salmonofdata

    My point is that I am astonished that we are being invited to feel sorry for an individual who murdered 149 people only yesterday. It is hardly society’s fault that he felt compelled to commit mass murder.

    I’m not going to speculate about what the murderer’s motives were, as I simply have no idea.

  • Turgon

    Discussions about mental illness are very important. However, it is important to stress that very very few mentally ill people commit murder or any other crimes for that matter.

    We do not know what the co-pilot’s heath was like at the time of these events.

    Furthermore the immediate aftermath of what appears to be the largest act of mass murder in Western Europe since the Madrid train bombings seems a strange time to contemplate the murderer and not the victims.

    This blog at this time is in extremely poor taste.

  • Robin Keogh

    You are a very unpleasant individual if u feel it is appropriate to dismiss the bravery and honesty of the poster. Bad Cess to you.

  • Robin Keogh

    I spent 14 years as a flight attendant with both Aer Lingus and Japan Airlines. In both cases there was never a time i can remember where only one individual was on the flight deck. I can only imagine the absolute terror that must have consumed the passengers and crew. My thoughts and prayers are with all of them particularly the family of the first officer who having lost a son, now have to deal with the possibility he was a mass murderer. As sombody who has also fought depression for a number of years leading to a six week stint in a psychiatric hospital, when i hear of these events i feel a deep sense of regret over the sheer waste of life and wonder at what might have been done to prevent such an horrendous tragedy, if indeed anything could have been done at all.

  • Turgon

    I have questioned neither the bravery or honesty of Korhomme. His general sense of decency and appropriateness on this issue, I do, however, question.

    I have questioned and continue to question the appropriateness of using what appears to be mass murder to initiate in a supportive fashion speculation about the mental state of the apparent murderer.

    I would much rather people talk about the trauma for the victims’ relatives.

    That a poster who claims to be a former doctor is willing to speculate wildly about another person’s health in the complete absence of any knowledge of any facts at all is bizarre.

    If you think my objection to the speculation, false linkage and timing of this blog makes me an unpleasant person that is fine though it says quite a lot about your views.

  • Robin Keogh

    At a time of such carnage, distress and death I would have thought that the appropriate response would be to appreciate the posters view in the context of his own dificult experience rather than criticise his attempts to broaden our overall understanding of the tragedy

  • Turgon

    The term you are looking for is mass murder. The appropriate response would be to focus on the victims not the murderer.

    There is a time and a place for broader understanding. However, that understanding should be based on knowledge not wild speculation. Korhomme has no understanding of this apparent case of murder beyond the bare facts: nor do you or I.

    Futhermore the appropriate time for any “broadening” is not the immediate aftermath of what appears at this point to be a case of mass murder.

    I will not dignify your loathsome justifications of “broadening”, “understanding” etc. with further debate. By all means continue understanding from a position of complete ignorance of the case. I like most decent people will stick to thinking of the victims.

  • Robin Keogh

    If there is a hierarchy of victims well they have sadly gone to their rest and there is nothing we can do for them sadly. But after the fact the actual victims are those who are left behind to mourn and try to come to terms with such shocking events. Among them there can be no hierarchy .

  • Robin Keogh

    Well thank God u seem to think u are decent, at least that is something i suppose

  • Robin Keogh

    Both of us can be sure that mental illness is at the centre of this probably given our history. Fair play for your post mate. Its not easy and u inspired me, its the first time i have ever done so.

  • Kristine Mo.

    I have to agree with Robin.

    And regardless of whether the co-pilot was experiencing mental health issues or not is kind of besides the point. Because even if it wasn’t a mental illness that was at the root of his actions, it could have been. It’s a potential reality that needs to be discussed. For people suffering from mental illness, a car with one passenger could be the same thing as a plane with 150. That’s terrifying, and opening up a discussion on how to prevent people from a) going to that dark place and b) accessing the means is an important one.

    For me, this all comes down to GP’s and governments and society in general being supportive of mental health initiatives and funding. In my observation it seems that some people that commit these horrible crimes unto themselves or others have been too afraid or ashamed to seek help or commit themselves, and then it becomes too late. Can you imagine a society where people could see a shrink and get treated and not feel ashamed at all, and it would be as routine as getting bloodwork done? Where people could easily get help and recover without fear? And some people suffering from mental illness don’t even recognize the illness, and that’s a problem that needs to be addressed through improvements in healthcare and community awareness.

    And regarding keeping the focus on the victims–I don’t think there’s anybody out there that ISN’T grieving with the victims’ families. I feel bad for Korhomme being accused of being careless in this regard. Everyone is grieving and the dialogue is all the same. Korhomme offers a perspective that is different and important to consider in understanding this tragedy and preventing ones like it in the future. Indeed, it’s in the interests of the surviving families, because they deserve to know the circumstances (and understand them if mental health was really a factor) of their loved ones’ death. And in my opinion, it’s a noble task to address the issues that might prevent tragedies like this in the future.

    So thanks for writing this blog post, Korhomme. And thanks to those individuals that can approach mental illness with an open, sensitive, and constructive mindset.

  • siphonophorest

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  • siphonophorest

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  • Korhomme

    Thank you.

    We all grieve for those who died, and we grieve too for their families and friends. I grieve for the parents whose children died; this is surely the worst human experience (yes, been there).

    The media reports today support my view that the co-pilot had a mental illness. I cannot turn the clock back, I can do nothing to prevent what happened. But I can call for an ‘open debate’ about the seriousness of mental illness—and how badly support services are funded in the UK: but I can hope that a similar disaster never happens again.

  • Mirrorballman

    Killing yourself and taking many others with you is not an depression issue, but a murderous rage issue.

  • sk

    “I will not dignify your loathsome justifications of “broadening”, understanding” etc. with further debate.”

    Nobody has attempted to “justify” crashing an airplane into a mountain, Turgon.

    As to your decency, bashing the bible on a regular basis does not automatically imbue one with that virtue.
    On the contrary, the most “christian” and “moral” of individuals often wind up being the least pleasant. Northern Ireland is a testament to that.

  • Andrew Smith

    I have bipolar. Suicidal tendencies is a struggle for those of us who have a disease of the mind but mass murder? That’s a reflection of something far worse than mental health. It just has to be. Otherwise we have no control over our own agency (actions) and that’s a scary thought.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Mental health and the working of the mind and the brain is a fascinating topic.

    I believe (and we are talking about belief here; the brain is something that is very poorly understood) certain mental illnesses such as depression can be brought about by physical brain problems, as well as a psychological response to events happening in the surrounding world.

    I think it certainly is possible for a depressed person to be both depressed and angry at the world, and in an effort to send out a signal, would seek to commit suicide and take a whole bunch of people with him. Understanding this possibility is in no way an attempt to stigmatize depression, although it’s a simple fact that no rational person would want to travel in a plane (or bus, or train) being driven by a person dealing with serious depression. Yes, depression is an illness which requires understanding and treatment, but like many other illnesses it can be bad for your health, or even dangerous, to be in close proximity to a sufferer in the wrong circumstances.

    It is important to restate that we can’t backslide into the place where we stigmatize depression and try to exclude sufferers from the workplace. That will simply drive sufferers underground. I rather suspect that a lot of people dealing with depression are quite good at hiding it. I am sure that some sufferers must try to be stoic and keep it pushed down in order to function, and of course in order to avoid upsetting or hurting family members or friends.

    Some commentators are already drawing a distinction between a person who commits an act like this out of mental illness of some kind, and a person who commits the act simply out of malice – in other words, evil. But what are the parameters that allow us to distinguish evil from illness ?

  • Zeno

    I’m with you on that. I mean are all people who commit murder suffering mental problems and deserving of our sympathy?
    It’s not that long ago Iris was described as mentally ill because of her affair. My opinion is , if you know what you are doing is wrong, you can’t just claim mental illness.