I’ve been thinking a lot about the Germanwings copilot who crashed the airplane killing everyone onboard. As someone who used to fly and now is a therapist I feel as if I’m almost required to post about this tragedy. Although Captain Sully Sullenberger III already has a great article on many of these points. You can read that here.
I’ve found I’ve had to limit how much I read about the event because it gets me really angry on so many different levels. While I think it’s safe to say everyone can agree that this pilot was a very disturbed individual, it is important to look at his struggles as deeply as we can.
I’ve heard people toss around depression as his main problem. While depression certainly can result in suicide, it doesn’t generally include mass murder as one of the potential outcomes. To do that requires much more than depression. Depression has been described as anger turned inward, not generally outward. To kill 150 people would take a lot of rage directed not just internally but externally too. By all indications this pilot had planned to carry this out in advance, not impulsively act as he did. Depression doesn’t fit very well as an indicator of what was wrong.
The bigger problem now will be how mental health will be shaped for pilots. Some people are already fearful of flying, and I’ve heard more than a few extremely irrational and irresponsible statements from civilians and policy makers. Right now, mental illness already has a lot of stigmas. I’ve heard people say they deserve to know if a pilot has any mental issues going on. While I can appreciate the need to feel safe, you are not entitled to know another person’s personal struggles. The wounding is already full of shame for most people, and having to out those skeletons will only encourage people to hide their problems even more.
When these mental problems occur, people have to feel safe enough to get help and recover. That’s hard to do if the career you’ve sacrificed years and tons of money for could be wiped out because of an illness anyone could be susceptible to occurs. Ask yourself honestly, if you were in their position, would you risk it? Keep in mind; pilots have families and people depending upon them to support. Endangering their career affects more people than just them. Add to the fact that many people are told to just “suck it up” when life hits the wall and it will only get worse. Consider the possibility that had this German wings pilot been allowed to take the right medications/get therapeutic help, 150 people might still be alive.
Pilots train for a very long time and are constantly checked to ensure they are proficient at their job. It’s every 6 months for captains, and every 12 for first officers. They fail, they can lose their entire career, not just their current job. They cannot take most medications, even if it’s Sudafed. Add to the fact that many of them have extremely low pay and a ton of stress from the job itself and you have all the conditions for a breakdown that they have every reason in the world to hide.
Pilots cannot be perfect; they have to be allowed to get help without fear of their career being adversely affected. Whatever changes happen as a result of this crash, I hope they are good ones.