Germanwings Crash Highlights Need to Move Past Stigma of Mental Illness

As more information surfaces about Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz's struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts, concern is rising that the disaster which killed him and 149 passengers and crew members, will stigmatize others who suffer from mental illness. 

Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The New York Times, "These kind of stories reinforce the anxiety, the doubts, the concerns that people have that ‘I have to keep my symptoms concealed at all costs,’ and that doesn't benefit anyone."

Mental Illness Stigma is Totally Inaccurate

Mental health disorders are very common in the United States. MentalHealth.gov reports that one in five adults experiences a mental illness to at some point in their lifetime, and one in 20 Americans lives with a severe problem, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. Although it's not common for someone with suicidal ideation to carry out an act like Lubitz's, more than 38,000 Americans take their own lives each year. In fact, it's the 10th leading cause of death in the country.

Unfortunately, with depression in the spotlight, people suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts or other forms of mental illness might be more reluctant to reach out for treatment or ask for support from those around them. Major news stories of violent people with mental illnesses raise the public's fears, yet they actually represent the majority of people with mental health issues. In fact, MentalHealth.gov says that only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are committed by people living with mental disorders. In contrast, those people are 10 times more likely to be victims of violence themselves.

A Barrier to Treatment

Stigma is one reason that many people with mental disorders don't seek help. Only 38 percent of afflicted adults with diagnosable mental problems get the treatment they need. If this number were higher, they'd have a greater change of living productive lives and holding down jobs successfully. While it looks like Lubitz's obsession with his job was likely one of the triggers for his violent act, MentalHealth.gov says that the vast majority of people with mental illness do well in their jobs, especially when they're getting the medication or therapy that they need.

If you know someone with a mental illness or suspect that a person could have a mental disorder, don't let the unfounded stigma turn you away. You can help by letting that person know you're available with a sympathetic ear and by treating him or her with respect instead of fear or revulsion. If appropriate, share information about available resources. Places such as this government website are a great place to start. If you hear others making disparaging comments or passing on erroneous beliefs, step in with the facts. This fact sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness is a great place to start.