Airplane crash, depression, stigmatization and TED

I have recently started using Twitter a lot and thinking in terms of short headlines to describe complex news, events and trends. When writing the title of this article, some key words came into my mind that are probably enough to give you an idea of what I will be talking about. And I will start with the penultimate word – stigmatization. A few weeks ago, I have written my previous article titled: “Why don’t we talk about mental health?” and I have promised in one of my paragraphs that I will continue the debate on the dangers implied in coming out as suffering from mental health. The dangers of stigmatization…

You have probably heard about the Germanwings airplane crash, the theories about the “suicidal depressive” co-pilot and the wave of out-raged citizens at the idea that air companies are hiring people without testing them enough. You might have, if you are lucky enough to have open-minded people who share the right things in your news feed, also heard about the stigmatization that has risen around people who suffer from depression. Some points are to be made clear:

1. Generalization is a bad approach and adds to the stigma around mental health.

“Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate – but assumptions about risk shouldn’t  be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades  and assessments should be made on a case by case basis. Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly.” (Mental Health Charity Mind – also see Read more section at the end)

2. Depression and aggressive suicide are not intrinsically linked.

“there isn’t a link between depression and aggressive suicide, if that is what this is. There isn’t normally such a link. “(Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and adviser to the British army)

3. Success stories exist and denying people who have records of suffering from depression a job is as bad as discriminating on other bases.

“I have dealt with some pilots with depression and when they recover they are still monitored. But the two I have dealt with returned to very successful careers.”

“Why should they not? What does cause trouble is saying that if you have ever had a history of depression then you should not be allowed to do whatever. That is wrong, as much as saying that people with a history of broken arms shouldn’t be allowed to do something.” (Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and adviser to the British army – also see Read More below)

4. We must analyze whether it was a case of depression or something else.

“Lubitz did not die quietly at home. He maliciously engineered a spectacular plane crash and killed 150 people. Suicidal thoughts can be a hallmark of depression, but mass murder is another beast entirely.

Using the word “depression” to describe inexplicable or violent behavior sends two false signals: First, that society has no obligations with regard to our happiness — because misery is a medical problem — and second, that a depressed person is in danger of committing abhorrent acts.” (Business Insider article – see read more section for links)

5. Last, but not least, depression is, despite the stigma and bad publicity lately, a medical condition that needs treatment and should not be a “secret we share” as Andrew Solomon remarkably describes it in the following video:

Read more:


Why don’t we talk about mental health?





Last Tuesday, March 10th, I was invited by the Mental Health Matters society to speak on a panel about mental health along representatives from Sheffield Mind organisation, BME Committee, Women Committee, LGBT, Pakistan Society and, of course, Mental Health Matters. The theme of our event was: “Why don’t we talk about mental health?” And we went through some questions regarding how we define mental health, stigmas associated with it, the gender and cultural gap and the existent dangers when bringing this conversation to light. Finally, we opened questions to the audience.

Taking into consideration that each 1 in 4 people will experience mental health problem at some point in their lives and that depression affects around 1 in 12 people, there is no doubt that mental health should be on our agenda. I have mentioned that a mental health issue is a persistent feeling of unhappiness that prohibits you from doing your normal activities and that can manifest through a spectrum of nuances from mild to harsher forms of depression/ schizophrenia/ eating disorders/ bipolarity etc.

Furthermore, the most common prejudice and stigma associated with mental health is that the person who is suffering from any kind of issue is portrayed as being violent and dangerous. Mental health issues are taken out of the everyday “normality” in the way we subjectively portray what should be a “normal” behaviour and what should not. And, from an international point of view, the biggest problem is that in many cultures mental health problems are associated with being cursed, with God’s punishment or, in milder situations, with a person’s inability to “snap it” and “move forward”. It is the way we associate mental health with willpower and human nature as being inherently bad or good that hinders our conversations about it.

At the same time, beyond the cultural gap, there is also a gender gap. According to a research done by Oxford University, depression rates are roughly two times higher in women, but alcohol disorders are two and a half times higher in men. Moreover, a woman getting drunk is worsely perceived than a man getting drunk, whilst a man saying that they feel miserable and anxious is generally considered worse than a woman. And all this roots back to our patriarchal portrayal of the society as in the generic couple of the “weak and faible, always in need of protection” woman and the “tough, powerful, protective, dominant, never weak to tears” male.

However, our conversation and the questions raised by the audience reached the point where we asked ourselves: is it always good to talk openly about mental health? What are the “side-effects” of self-identifying as being disabled or suffering from something? And the answer was pretty obvious and unanimous: labelling. Seeing that society has created so many prejudices, the fear of being labelled and constanty living like this at school, at work, at home, makes it difficult for anyone to have the courage to speak up. And at this point I have talked about a TED talk, but to keep up the interest, I will continue the TED talk conversation in a further post.

To make this long piece of article short, my night was wonderful. I have learned from different perspectives and I have given my own international opinion on the matter. Yet, I must recognize that the different backgrounds did not alienate one common perception about mental health which is best described in a quote that said: “Mental Health has been the Cinderella of public health practice” (Lee, 2003). We do not talk about it, we do not care about it enough, but it exists and it can play a crucial role in our lives. Labelling might be hard to overcome, but by proving ourselves everyday, we start shaping and educating the new generations better. So, how about we should start talking?