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mental health mondays :: the plane truth

here we go again. it's sad enough to hear that nearly a hundred and fifty people died at the hands of an individual unwisely entrusted with a a potential missile, but now we get to observe the media circling and waiting for confirmation that the man who may have murdered them had a mental illness. and what a grotesque spectacle it is, because it basically consists of nothing but ominous insinuations that this co-pilot was depressed and so he flew a plane into a mountain, without trying to provide any larger context about the disorder or the millions of people who suffer from it.

to be clear, i don't have a problem with his apparent record of depression being brought up as a possible explanation for what happened. it's possible that there is a link. but smashing a plane full of innocent people into a mountain is not the act of someone who is merely depressed. there is a whole other level of illness going on there and, with the information we have thus far, it seems disturbingly like multiple doctors over a period of years may have missed this. that is the real story about mental disorders here.

most of what we've heard about the co-pilot of the germanwings flight is circumstantial evidence. we know that he sought psychiatric help during the time that he was training to become a pilot. the media have reported that he was treated because of suicidal tendencies [e.g.], however what's actually been said is that there was a note about suicidal tendencies in his file. that might seem like the same thing, but it isn't. asking depressed patients if they ever think about suicide or self-harm is a standard part of  a psychiatric exam; a note on his file could mean that he was actively contemplating or had attempted suicide, or it could mean that he simply answered a standard question "yes, i've thought about it". there's a broad range there.

the media also jumped on reports that he hid an illness from his employers, immediately hinting that it might have been depression. more recently, however, it's emerged that he may have had a detached retina, a serious threat to his vision and, hence, his career. i'm certain that there are people who feel compelled to hide mental illness from their employers, and many who simply don't mention it, but it seems to me that concealing an illness is something that one does because one feels their livelihood could be threatened. [as an aside, you might notice in the linked article a line that says it's unknown whether his vision problems were due to physiological or psychological reasons. i need clarification on how exactly a psychological illness can cause retinal detachment. i did find reports of two patients who suffered retinal detachment after taking topiramate- used to treat both epilepsy and bipolar disorder- but that's hardly conclusive and furthermore, a drug reaction does not constitute a "psychological cause". and fyi, there are lots of drugs that are known to cause vision problems including retinal detachment, including drugs for prostate and bladder problems, male pattern baldness, and antibiotics.]

last night, i saw that journalist/ media personality piers morgan got in a twitter-scrap with a number of people for stating that depressed people shouldn't be flying airplanes. [is it starting to look like i'm obsessed with piers morgan? because i'm not. no, really. not at all. stop thinking those things at me.] i reflexively disagreed with him, although i feel a little hypocritical doing so, because i do believe that there should be restrictions placed on people diagnosed with some mental illnesses owning guns [more to protect them from themselves]. but i think that it opens a dangerous door when you start barring certain avenues of employment to people with mental disorders. if we start limiting career choices based on the [false] premise that anyone with a mental disorder can be dangerous to others, what's to stop insurance companies from increasing rates for any company that employs someone who has had a mental disorder? and if you're a company, why would you even hire someone with a mental disorder, if you believe that they could represent a danger to your business and your employees? and what's the time frame for diagnosis? mental illnesses are often temporary and sometimes they come and go. so how far into your past is an employer allowed to peer before being reassured that you aren't going to become depressed again? [for those who would field an argument like "we don't let blind people drive taxicabs", recognise that the situations are totally different. blindness is a condition that renders a person physically incapable of executing a taxi driver's duties. a closer analogy- although still flawed- would be whether a construction company could refuse to hire a left-handed person because they're more prone to accidents using standard tools.]

one much-reported tidbit is that one of the co-pilot's ex-girlfriends [and for the record, if i'm ever subject to media scrutiny, i would like for my exes not to be a major source of information] has said that he told her that he would one day do something big, something for which he would be remembered. while the media has held this up as indicative of a long-standing mental illness, they've completely missed one crucial fact: these sorts of statements are not typical of depressed people. such a statement seems to indicate that he suffered from delusions of grandeur and possibly, if we choose to believe that there was a sinister meaning behind his words and we assume that he wasn't just planning to build a clean-energy motor or be the first man to pilot planes on the moon, sociopathy. by linking this woman's recollection with his depression, the media has lost an opportunity to talk about the complexities of mental illness, something that would be both timely and useful.

i would like to know more about this man's mental state. i'd like to know if any of the therapists he was seeing believed that there was something wrong with him that wasn't explained by depression. i'd like to know if the rumours of his vision problems were true and, if so, if that made him angry and if he blamed others for his problems. i'd like to know what his work environment was like- whether he was getting adequate time between flights, if he had had confrontations with coworkers or management and, if so, how those affected his mental state. i'd like to know what sorts of services are offered publicly or by employers for people who have high-stress jobs. if it's determined that he was depressed, i'd like an investigation into why he did something so atypical of depressed people. but i don't think that any of that is going to happen.

the media will likely continue to talk about him as "depressed" and nothing else until a more interesting story or angle distracts them, at which point they'll stop talking about him at all. average people will subconsciously internalize the belief that while not all depressed people are dangerous, any of them can be dangerous [and when it comes to policy-making, there's no meaningful difference between "all" and "any"]. saddest of all, the families of the co-pilot's victims will be denied a proper accounting of what caused the deaths of their loved ones. instead, they'll be left with a facade of specious reasoning and the dissatisfying assurance that there is nothing that can be done to stop a "lone nut".

source for the photo above.


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