Friday, March 27, 2015

The stigma of mental illness

So we're learning this morning, incrementally, that there's a good likelihood that Andreas Lubitz, the promising young pilot who apparently crashed a Germanwings flight on purpose, suffered from a mental illness of some sort. That his doctor had signed him out of work for the day of the flight. That he flew anyway. And during that flight, something in Andreas's head went terribly, terribly wrong. Now 150 people are dead. Moms and daughters. Opera singers. German schoolchildren. Little babies.

It's all very tragic and terrible. But Andreas wasn't a monster -- he was a person like you and me. And he had an illness which he did not want his employer to know about.

And you know what? Although I hold him responsible for those deaths, I don't blame him for that impulse to keep his problem secret.

In an age when ads on TV deal with issues like painful intercourse after menopause, erectile dysfunction, and overactive bladder (do you see a theme here? We're either worrying about sex or about peeing on ourselves), there are almost no ads for antidepressants. Mental illness is the dirty little secret in the back room. It's Aunt Pearl, whom people tolerate at Christmas but pretty much shun the rest of the time.  It's your neighbor's kid, who had a breakdown during his M.B.A. program and "had to come home." It's that fragility in all of us that we don't want to acknowledge. That fragility can close in on us at any moment.

In many cases, mental illness can be managed well with medications and talk therapy, and a person can pretty much manage to live a normal life. For Andreas Lubitz, however, it might have been a career-ender,  This may be why his employer knew nothing about it. Of course, not knowing Lufthansa's policy, I can't say for sure.

It's all so sad. Over and over, Andreas's  trainers kept telling us: he loved to fly.

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