In the aftermath of the Germanwings crash, many are searching for an explanation as to what could have possibly led co-pilot Andreas Lubitz to deliberately crash the plane, killing 150 people — including himself. So far, the response to that question has largely revolved around Lubitz’s mental health. The 28-year-old pilot was reportedly suffering from extreme stress and depression and had visited numerous doctors. But, contrary to what many are implying, there is no causal connection between Lubitz’s mental health and last Monday’s crash.
Moreover, attributing the crash to Lubitz’s depression is not only erroneous, but it also adds further stigma to an illness that’s already deeply stigmatized. Depression does not cause someone to commit an act of violence. In fact, if schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression were all cured, violence would only decline by 4 percent, Duke University School of Medicine professor Jeffrey Swanson told The Pacific Standard. An estimated 10 million Americans suffer from depression, according to Forbes, but it seems safe to assume that 10 million Americans are not considering an act like the one that Lubitz committed.
When placed into the context of just how many Americans suffer from mental health issues, it becomes clear just how small a percentage of those who will commit such an atrocity really is. The Huffington Post reports that while one in five people experience a serious mental health issue in their lifetime, only about 4 percent of violent acts in the U.S. are committed by the mentally ill. Those numbers decline even further when depression is isolated from other mental illnesses. The Guardian reports that a study found that, of more than 47,000 people in Sweden, only “3.7 percent of men and 0.5 percent of women committed a violent crime after being identified as clinically depressed.”
Furthermore, when individuals with depression do commit acts of violence, that violence is more likely to be suicidal as opposed to homicidal. According to a study published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry, depression has been found to increase the risk of “adverse outcomes including suicide, premature mortality and self-harm, but associations with violent crime remain uncertain.”
Yet, in spite of all of these facts, incorrect assumptions about the implications of mental illness persist. A 2013 Gallup poll, taken after the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard shooting, found that 48 percent blamed the “failure of the mental health system to identify individuals who are a danger to others” for mass shootings. But, as Swanson pointed out to The Pacific Standard, while the person who commits such an act is undoubtedly troubled, only one out of four had a documented psychiatric history. On the other hand, 70 percent of adolescent mass murderers were found to be loners, 61.5 percent had dealt with substance abuse, and 43.5 percent had been bullied. When mental illness was involved, it was likely in combination with one of these other factors.
Thus, as much as we want an explanation for Lubitz’s actions, the one that's currently being used just doesn't cut it. Blaming his mental health issues for the crash is an oversimplification, and a misunderstanding of the illness from which he may have suffered.
The rare tragedy that we witnessed last Monday cannot be explained away by an illness that affects 350 million worldwide.
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