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?


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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