“Why should my depression define me?” The Germanwings plane crash and the stigma of mental illness
It’s incredibly hard to put into words what mental illness means to me. I’ve tried more times than I can count, through years of therapy and stammered attempts at explanations to others, but the truth is, there’s no hard and fast way to even make myself understand the incredible blackness that lives somewhere within my mind.
And it does live there; it never really goes away. Whilst my depression can be alleviated with the use of medication to cure the chemical imbalance and staying away from certain triggers, I’ve lived with it long enough to know there is no cure. As such, I have to live with it, like hundreds of thousands of other people. I have to get by.
Maybe this is why I had such a strong reaction to the headlines in Friday’s national papers suggesting that Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed a Germanwings airplane on March 24th because he suffered from depression. It’s impossible to deny that what happened on that day was a tragedy and it’s difficult to fathom what drives someone to commit a course of action that leads to not only their death, but that of a hundred and forty-nine other people. However in the eight years I’ve battled depression, I’ve never once considered harming anyone but myself. The only life I’ve ever wanted to take is my own.
There’s no logical reason for my illness, which is one of the hardest things to understand. There are triggers such as stress, and my own neuroticism hardly helps, but a day can be going fine until I’m blindsided by blackness. Whether it’s the absence of feeling or feeling too acutely a deep, unwavering despair, depression just isn’t as simple as being a bit sad. I honestly wish it was.
I’ve been told to pull myself together. I’ve been told my illness isn’t real. I’ve dashed off to the toilets and hidden in cupboards where I can cry or hyperventilate in peace for no reason other than that’s the way things are that day. I’ve lied about having allergies or a cold to excuse red eyes and exhaustion from sleep deprivation. I’ve tried to have “the conversation” with employers before. It’s excruciating. You have to sit down in a room and tell a near-stranger that most days, you feel like life is not worth living. Most days, you have to battle not only to get out of bed, but to wash, to clothe yourself, to actually eat and drink. Simple things like going to the supermarket or sitting in a lecture theatre bring you out in a panic attack, shaking and sobbing for reasons it’s almost impossible to put into words.
How do you explain these things to people who have no experience of depression? It’s an incredibly difficult thing to comprehend even when you suffer from it, so what hope do the public at large have? There’s a simple answer; you don’t tell anyone. You suffer in silence, because it seems easier to just keep your head down and pretend everything is fine.
Better understanding of mental illness and support for those who are living with a condition is the key to preventing tragedy.
The outcry in the wake of the information about Lubitz’s mental health was a frightening setback for the conversation about mental illness that has been so slow to even reach the stage it’s at now. “Why was he allowed to fly a plane?” screeched the Daily Mail. My rebuttal for the media, and the countless sadly ignorant people who agree with their sentiment, is this: Depression does not define anyone. We will never know what was going through Andrea Lubitz’s mind when he made the awful decision he did, but speculating that his actions were related to his diagnosis of depression does nothing but stigmatise an illness that is already poorly understood.
Better understanding of mental illness and support for those who are living with a condition is the key to preventing tragedy. Blanket discrimination in the workplace is not any kind of solution, and only adds to the feeling that many sufferers of depression have that their condition is all-consuming and will prevent them from ever leading a normal life. There are lessons to be learnt from the tragedy of the Germanwings crash, but they don’t relate to sufferers of depression being incapable of flying planes. There are conversations necessary about aeroplane safety guidelines and workplace pastoral support. Pilots, doctors, police, members of the armed forces- in fact, anyone who is responsible for human life- should not have their suitability for their job defined by their depression, but feel supported enough in the workplace that when they are at risk, they can get the help they need. Communication between mental health professionals and employers should be more frequent so that sufferers do not feel so completely alone. Ideally this is how everyone should be supported, but with mental health still low on a long list of government priorities, it currently seems like an impossible dream.
Speculating that Lubitz’s actions were related to his diagnosis of depression does nothing but stigmatise an illness that is already poorly understood.
I am not my depression, but my depression is a part of me, and even having the most basic understanding of my illness and at least some idea of how to cope when it rears its ugly head has been my salvation. It is my most sincere wish that the many more people suffering in silence are able to have this most basic right and not feel like there is no way out.
Unfortunately this can only be achieved with compassion from society as a whole. Depression may be a concept hard to comprehend, but accepting the way that it debilitates and drives people to desperate places is the only way to move forward and towards the light at the end of the tunnel, which despite everything, I still whole-heartedly believe exists.