Feature Medicine and the Media

The pilot, depression, and the salacious headlines that feed stigma

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h1874 (Published 07 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1874
  1. Ingrid Torjesen, freelance journalist, London
  1. ingrid_torjesen{at}hotmail.com

Ignorant media coverage of mental illness after the Germanwings plane crash risked setting back recent progress in destigmatising and treating depression, writes Ingrid Torjesen

“If we don’t keep this extremely rare tragedy in perspective, many more lives will be damaged as a result,” Sue Baker, director of Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma programme run by the UK mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, warned The BMJ.

French prosecutors said last week that it seemed likely that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked pilot Patrick Sonderheimer out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed a Germanwings plane in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board. This prompted the press to seek out every scrap of information it could gather about Lubitz’s background to speculate on what could have driven him to this act. Drip fed to the public have been details of relationship problems, failing eyesight, torn-up sick notes in his home, and most of all his history of depression.

“Madman in the cockpit”

The incident sparked headlines such as “Madman in the cockpit” from the Sun newspaper, “Killer pilot suffered from depression” from the Daily Mirror, and “Mass-killer co-pilot who deliberately crashed Germanwings plane had to STOP training because he was suffering depression and ‘burn-out’” and “Why on earth was he allowed to fly?” from the Daily Mail.

“Recently we have started to see some positive changes in the way society thinks and feels about those of us with mental health problems,” Baker said. “The latest national survey of public attitudes towards mental illness in England [in 2013] showed the most significant annual improvement in attitudes in the last decade. As well as improving public attitudes there has been a large increase in the number of employers [to 325] we are working with to combat stigma and to support the mental health and wellbeing of all employees across a wide range of industries and sectors.”1

The number of people being treated for depression is rising: prescriptions for antidepressants rose by 6.3%, to 53.3 million, between 2012 and 2013.2 But there is still far more work to do to destigmatise the condition, Baker said. Nearly half (49%) of the 1714 English people questioned in a survey on attitudes to mental illness prepared for Time to Change said that they would feel uncomfortable talking to an employer about their mental health.3

Baker said, “Our great fear from some of the reporting of the horrific Germanwings tragedy last week is that some of this progress will be reversed, causing even more tragedy by preventing people who are experiencing depression and have seen the headlines shouting out from the newsstands from seeking the help they need (from their GP, employer, or family and friends).”

Time to Change has issued a joint statement with the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness to highlight that media speculation about the link with the pilot’s history of depression had been “overly simplistic” and risked “adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems.”

The statement said, “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.”

Unhelpful judgments

Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, took the same view. “We have seen a recent fall in stigma—an increase in willingness to be open about depression, and, most important of all, to seek help,” he told The BMJ. Hasty judgments and decisions “might make it more, not less, difficult for people with depression to receive appropriate treatment,” he warned. “This will not help sufferers, families, or the public.”

The charities also drew support on Twitter, including from the former tabloid newspaper editor Alastair Campbell, who has depression himself. “Hideous front pages show how far we have to go in beating stigma and taboo surrounding depression. #timetochange #timetosackafeweditors,” he tweeted. The psychiatrist Alys Cole-King tweeted, “Heartbroken by tragic loss of lives #Germanwings crash. But worried mindless stigma re MH [mental health] issues + depression may potentially kill 100s more,” and the journalist Elena Cresci tweeted images of the worst headlines, adding, “And we wonder why many people with mental health problems feel like they can’t speak out.”

“Media portrayals and reporting of mental illness are incredibly powerful in educating and influencing the public,” Baker said. “We’ve worked in partnership with a wide range of reporters, presenters, script writers, commissioners, and editors in order to ensure that both factual and fictional media portrayals of people with mental health problems are accurate and avoid stereotypes that fuel stigma.”

One in six UK adults is estimated to have depression at any one time, and many people with depression hold responsible jobs, some reaching the top of their field.4 5

One well known other “pilot” who had depression is the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who flew to the moon. World leaders with depression have included Winston Churchill, and the former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik took three and a half weeks’ sick leave for the condition half way through his first term (1997-2000) and was re-elected for a second (2001-5).

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h1874

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and declare: None.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

References

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