It’s been tough to escape the news of the unfortunate crash of Germanwings flight 9525 in the French Alps, which appears to have been caused by the co-pilot’s suicide. In addition to ending his own life, he killed 149 passengers onboard. As they commonly do, the media have spent days covering the ins and outs of the tragedy, including analysis of the mental state of a depressed or suicidal person. While I would prefer to change the channel, my husband is a news fanatic and has been glued to the coverage. My feathers ruffle easily at all of the ignorant comments about suicide that come from reporters, commentators and the general public so I usually prefer to keep away. Coping with highly-publicized suicides can be difficult.
On one hand, I feel for those who are so embattled inside that they choose suicide. However, in this situation, even I can’t comprehend why someone would choose to bring so many other innocent people down with him. My heart goes out to the victims and their families, too. As a survivor, I am feeling conflicted. I think this conversation is much bigger than me – and suicide in general. There are so many factors in this particular case.
Over the weekend, my husband was watching the Smerconish program on CNN and I overheard a few interesting statistics and comments from psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Dr. Gail Saltz, who was a guest on the show. She noted that only 2.5% of all suicides involve more than one person. While this is pure speculation, she explained that someone who has suffered so much inside might find the relative suffering of others trivial at that point. The torment they may be feeling is so deep that it surpasses the idea that others might be affected at all. Dr. Saltz returned today and offered even more insight. She explained that the media’s angle around this story only perpetuates the stigma in our society. Unfortunately, the media only addresses mental illness when something sensational like this happens, which makes people who already have an opinion feel even more justified in believing that “this” is what mental illness means. She stressed it needs to be a part of everyday conversation instead. She used the word conjecture (forming opinions on incomplete information) a lot and said that’s all we’re doing at this point – speculating and trying to bring meaning or explanation to something we don’t have. Many headlines are pejorative or defamatory, e.g. “Mad Man in the Cockpit,” which only encourages a stigma. She reminded viewers there is a broad spectrum of mental illness and that using terminology like that makes it all sound the same. The majority of those suffering from anxiety, depression or other would never do something like what this co-pilot did, but that’s not how the media is making it out to be. I sincerely applaud Dr. Saltz on her encouragement of more responsible journalism.
Even as I type this, with the TV on in the background, I feel really uneasy inside and I can sense my anxiety kicking in. It takes me back to those early hours and days after my dad died – where we were scrambling for answers and trying desperately to find clues (as CNN speculated victims families are now doing).
The program then went on to instill fear in future airline passengers about the mental health of pilots and other professionals – like doctors, police officers and others who have the publics’ lives in their hands. This is a topic I am very passionate about. Currently, society penalizes professionals who voice concern over a mental health issue by “flagging” them to respective boards or authorities or stripping them of their professional licenses. It might lead to someone keeping their struggles to themselves and the situation snowballing from there. It’s a vicious catch-22 that we don’t quite have an answer to. My dad was a legal professional and my husband is a physician – both high stress careers. It has been reported that suicides among these professions are the highest. Here’s an article about this (click here). This is a difficult topic and I don’t know the proper solution. Coincidentally, the latest issue of Internal Medicine News arrived for my husband this weekend, as well, and on the front page was a story about the prevalence of suicide among medical professionals who do not feel comfortable coming forward about what they’re experiencing. Many come from small towns where they would be the “professional” to talk to about this. Others worry about confidentiality or think they can handle it themselves.
In the case of this plane crash, the pilot might have been removed from the cockpit because of his mental state, but then what would he have done with the rest of his life and to earn money? That’s the trouble many professionals face. But, as a passenger, of course I would want to know that my pilot was mentally fit to fly. That’s another reason why I feel conflicted. What’s unfortunate though, is that an extreme situation like this one – and the way the media is addressing it – contributes to the stigma that exists in society.
Amidst the irritating media coverage stemming from highly-publicized suicides, there are usually a few comments or articles that surface that help to further the cause of survivors by bring to light truths and facts about what its like to cope with mental illness. My hope is that those will start to circulate in the coming days to help level-set society’s perceptions after something so sensational like this.
While I don’t have all the answers, I just wanted to share that no matter how much time passes, hearing about a new suicide can be jarring for survivors and bring to the surface emotions that take us back to our own losses. If you’re feeling this way – you are certainly not alone.