Germanwings Co-Pilot Hid Mental Illness from Employer

Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of the Germanwings Airbus A320 that crashed into the French Alps, suffered from a mental illness but kept the diagnosis hidden from his employer, according to authorities.

As evidence mounts that Lubitz deliberately killed himself and 149 other crew members and passengers, there are conflicting reports about whether he suffered from depression or another mental illness. Friends of  the 27-year-old said in news reports that he showed no signs of depression prior to the crash, but the BBC and German media outlets report he was diagnosed with a serious depressive episode in 2009.

Suicide a Risk of Depression

While suicide is a known risk of depression, people who knew Lubitz report that he didn't show other symptoms of the disorder. Peter Ruecker, a glider club member who watched Lubitz learn to fly, said, "He was happy he had the job with Germanwings and he was doing well. He gave off a good feeling."

Ruecker characterized Lubitz as "...perhaps sometimes a bit quiet," but called him "a lot of fun" and said, "Knowing (him), this is just inconceivable for me.

A Deliberate Decision

The black box recording, recovered from the debris, paints a chilling picture of the co-pilot's deliberate actions. He set the plane's altitude to 100 feet on the autopilot while the pilot banged on the locked cockpit door and passengers screamed in horror. The recording revealed that his breathing was steady throughout the flight's final minutes, with no signs of either a medical problem or psychological distress.

Prosecutors told the New York Times on Friday that "among the items found at Mr. Lubitz’s home were several doctors’ notes stating that he was too ill to work, including on the day of the crash." Even if Lubitz was showing subtle signs of depression, his employer was reportedly unaware. CNN reports that Lufthansa, which owns Germanwings, does not require any psychological screening for its pilots once they're hired. The co-pilot's performance in the air was perfect up until the time of his fatal decision.

Many people struggle with depression in silence, and most won't take such a desperate action. However, if you stay alert for symptoms, you may be able to help a family member or friend who could use some assistance.

Helping Someone With Depression

If you notice that someone appears to be withdrawing from social interaction and avoiding activities that he or she once enjoyed, the cause may be depression. Other clues to a potential problem are persistent sadness, irritability, fatigue, and problems doing day-to-day tasks. The American Psychiatric Association's manual -- the DSM-5: Diagnositc and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders -- also lists significant weight loss or gain, either excessive sleeping or insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty in concentrating and recurring thoughts of death as symptoms to watch for. 

If you notice these signs, you can help in the following ways:

  • Talk to the person and also be a good listener.
  • Be emotionally supportive and don't dismiss or judge the person's feelings.
  • Try to help the person get out and engage in activities but don't push too hard.
  • Don't try to be their therapist. Strongly encourage them that treatment can help them. Also offer to take them to doctor or counseling appointments.
  • Take talk of suicide seriously. If the person talks about killing him or herself, report the conversation to authorities or a qualified mental health expert.

Test: Are You Suffering From Depression?

Are you or one of your friends or loved ones suffering from depression? Take this test to gauge how serious the problem is. Click here for an in-depth version.

Dr. Barb Nefer, PsyD, is a licensed counselor who's worked with couples and families for more than 10 years. She specializes in relationship counseling, self-esteem issues, and working with adults who grew up with addicted or dysfunctional parents. Dr. Nefer is also the author of So You Want to be a Counselor (Frederick Fell Publishing, 2014).