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pilots, depression & suicide

I have been struggling this past week to get my head around the recent Germanwings aviation tragedy. The fact that a plane crashed with the loss of 150 lives is bad enough, but with detail now emerging about the likelihood of what happened that morning, I'm finding the awful truth of this incident really hard to engage with. It raises so many important issues, both professionally and personally. I have wanted to write about it before now, but I have felt a bit overwhelmed and have not really known where to start.

In addition to a career spent working in psychology and mental health - including depression and suicidality, I also know the world of aviation very well through both my consultancy work and travel experiences. As part of that consultancy, during the past four years, I have met and worked with over a thousand commercial airline pilots. I understand them well as a profession and can appreciate the unique pressures of their world.

Whilst on one level this places me well to be able to comment on some of the issues involved in the destruction of 4U9525, on another level it leaves me cold and dumbfounded. Stress is certainly commonplace among pilots, depression not unknown. But a pilot killing himself and a planeload of his crew and passengers? What happened in the French mountains last week still unsettles me as I write about it now.

Something I have read about a lot since the incident has been around the potential failure of processes that have allowed someone suffering with depression to be operating a commercial airline flight in the first place. There have been some interesting, contentious and downright outrageous responses to this line of thought, depending on the media outlet involved.

It concerns me that negative reporting only adds in to the stigma of mental health. Stigma increases the likelihood that issues such as depression or poor mental health are not discussed or addressed among a professional group. This is not a good thing. It is worth having a read of the BPS and EFPA responses to this incident, as well as that of Mind, the mental health charity. This is also a well written Guardian piece. A particular point made eloquently in such articles that I would choose to emphasise, is the separation of depression as a condition and the actions of Andreas Lubitz. In my book, he's a murderer. His depression (if that is indeed what he had) is, in some ways, a side issue.

A further topic of debate has been around the psychological assessment of pilots. Is there a way of screening or identifying 'at risk' pilots? In reality, this is really difficult. Behaviour prediction or risk assessment are inexact sciences. In order to ascertain whether someone is suicidal or not, outwith them telling you there is not really any other surefire way of knowing (and even if someone does tell you, it doesn't mean that they will go on to attempt suicide). The best predictor of future suicidal behaviour is actually past suicidal behaviour. There is also what is observable, but clearly, suicidal intent isn't observable. Online behaviour may give an indication of someone's frame of mind (as it did in Lubitz's case), although that opens up a whole privacy conversation. Other people - family, friends or colleagues - may be able to give some clues. However, in the absence of such data, it is simply not possible to reach a 100% failsafe accurate conclusion.

In Lubitz’s case, if people were aware of his suicidality, what did they do about it? Who knew what? From reading about it this week, it would seem that Lubitz did indeed have a history of depression, suicidal thinking, and had had periods of contact with different medical professionals at various points in his life/career. The level to which this was communicated between such professionals and Lubitz’s employers, and what action was taken as a result (if any), will, I am certain, be the subject of debate, investigation and litigation for years ahead. If a family member of mine had been involved in this tragedy, beyond the devastation of loss, my first reaction would be one of anger.

A further argument could be that perhaps screening for suicidal tendencies is the wrong approach, and that a paradigm shift is required. Could an emphasis be put on screening for homicidal tendencies in pilots? It might sound extreme, but if I look at last week's crash objectively, in Lubitz I see a murderer first before I see a man acting out of despair and desperation. He planned what he was going to do, and had no respect or regard for the lives of his crew or passengers. Does this make him a psychopath? Perhaps. This does open up an interesting line of thought. As an example, the PCL-R psychopathy checklist is a well established assessment tool that is used to identify psychopathic traits, and a measure such as this may carry more predictive validity in spotting individuals who have the potential to harm others than any measure of suicidality.

Going forward, perhaps with a tightening up of protocol and airline medical staff being able to access as broad a range of information as is feasible (not just self report), trends could be spotted that would lessen the likelihood of a Lubitz slipping through the net. I am also encouraged with the speed that the airline industry introduced the ‘rule of two’, which now prevents the situation arising where a pilot could be on his own in the flight deck. There are thus encouraging signs already. I am genuinely in awe of the aviation industry – their ability to learn from mistakes is second to none. Anyone in any doubt of this should have a read of David Beaty's excellent book, The Naked Pilot. Ultimately, all that matters is that this never happens again. I genuinely believe that this is an isolated enough incident that, with some proper safeguards and regulation put in place, this will be the case.

My final word on this for now is about pilots. In my experience they have an overwhelming level of professionalism and dedication, and that a member of their profession has done this will make them sick to their core. I wouldn’t want this to detract from the respect and esteem they have in the eyes of the general public – in my view they deserve it. They do a damn fine job.

I maintain hope that good will emerge from this dreadful tragedy. My thoughts are with the families of those affected.

Yours in psychology,


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