Mental health groups demand more responsible media coverage after Germanwings crash

They say coverage of the crash can lead to witch hunts of people dealing with mental-health issues in the workplace.

Mental health organizations are taking a stand against media coverage that stigmatizes mental illness following last week’s Germanwings plane crash in France.

Many media outlets pointed to poor mental health as a culprit after the airline said co-pilot Andreas Lubitz appeared to have prevented the captain from re-entering the cabin before deliberately downing the plane, killing 150 people.

Prosecutors have since confirmed that Lubitz had been treated by a psychotherapist because of previous suicidal tendencies and had recently researched ways to carry out suicide – suggesting the crash was premeditated. Authorities have also said the pilot hid evidence of an illness from his employers, including a sick note dated from the day of the crash.

Subsequent news reports and and headlines, such as The National Enquirer’s "Cockpit crazies: It could happen here," have demonized mental health disorders.

Groups including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Mental Health America (MHA) are trying to reframe the conversation to focus instead on the reality that most people with depression or other psychiatric diagnoses are rarely violent.

MHA president and CEO Paul Gionfriddo says media coverage thus far is too quick to focus on Lubtiz’s history of mental illness, rather than looking at other factors that could be linked to his actions.

"If you look at data, the fact that he was an under 30-year-old male is more likely to be the reason why [Lubitz] did this, rather than blaming a mental illness. But we don’t say, ‘Don’t let any males under 30 fly,’" he says. "We need to get sophisticated about what triggers these kinds of violent acts, instead of saying people with depression can’t fly planes."

Mary Giliberti, NAMI’s executive director, said in a statement that as the global conversation turns to whether anyone who experiences mental illness should be allowed to serve in certain occupations, the public should remember that mental illness is treatable and people do recover.

"It will be an additional tragedy if the crash of Flight 9525 leads to ‘witch hunts’ in which people who have sought help for mental illness become unfairly discriminated against," she said in the statement. "As a society, we need to create a cultural environment in which people are encouraged to seek help when they need it — regardless of whether it is a mental illness or any other illness."

Gionfriddo also published a statement on MHA’s website, echoing Giliberti’s sentiment. He pushed it a step further, positing that the stigma surrounding mental illness may have played a role in the pilot’s move.

"It has been reported that Mr. Lubitz may have been afraid to tell his employer about what he was dealing with," Gionfriddo said in the statement. "So many people are in similar situations when they first start noticing warning signs, and are fearful of retribution or being labeled unstable. Now they may be even less willing to come forward because of Mr. Lubitz’s actions and the response to them."

In the coming months, MHA will focus on discussing mental health in workplaces with employers to help them with early identification of disorders and intervention.

"The stigmatization this creates leads people in the workplace not to come forward for fear there will be a reprisal in the workplace. That is something we need to guard against," Gionfriddo adds. "We are using [the Germanwings incident] as an opportunity to help people understand that we can make a difference if we screen people ubiquitously, identify a mental health disorder early, and implement aggressive treatment that is integrated and supported and nondiscriminatory in our country and globally."

Many news outlets have also questioned holes in airline pilots’ mental screening processes.

"An overly alarmist, sensationalized approach or kneejerk policy reaction to a complicated set of circumstances like these could be counterproductive and serve to further erect barriers to people seeking help when they need it," says Ron Honberg, NAMI’s director of policy and legal affairs. "We worry that stories like this go on and on and reinforce the negative perceptions."

In the UK, mental health charities Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, along with anti-stigma campaign Time to Change, issued a joint statement last week directed at media outlets.

While the organizations’ agreed that an assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is "entirely appropriate," they explained that assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression or any other illness.

"We wanted to urge the media to report responsibly, avoiding gross generalizations and sweeping statements that connected the vast issue of mental health problems with the unique tragedy of the Germanwings crash," Mind’s celebrities and ambassadors manager Camilla Swain says.

Mind published the statement on its website and linked to it on its Twitter and Facebook pages. To date, it has received over 30,000 Facebook likes, and Mind’s "complain to the media" webpage has garnered more than 100,000 views, according to Swain.

"It has been encouraging to see some parts of the media directly challenging the early print headlines, including BBC, New Statesman, and The Guardian," she adds. "While it has been heartening to see such coverage, the widespread reports plastered across [newspapers] show just how far we have to go in stamping out the stigma that clearly still surrounds mental health problems."

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