Reprinted from Smirking Chimp
Investigators are still putting together the pieces, but from what we know so far, it's likely that 27-year-old German co-pilot Andreas Lubitz committed mass murder-suicide when he flew a Germanwings passenger jet carrying 149 passengers and fellow crewmen into the French Alps.
Authorities say they haven't found a suicide note, but it's a safe bet that Lubitz's final act was prompted by depression (they found the meds), diminished vision, a deteriorating romantic relationship and his worry that the Lufthansa subsidiary would ground him if they found out about his problems, crashing a career he loved and blowing up his livelihood.
Though rare, pilot suicide isn't unheard of. As long as the current system remains in place, it will happen again.
By "system," I'm referring both to specific rules issued by the FAA and other countries' aviation authorities to regulate pilots, and to that most coldhearted of socioeconomic systems, you're-on-your-own capitalism.
"Before they are licensed, pilots must undergo a medical exam, conducted by a doctor trained and certified by the aviation agency," explains The New York Times. Some airlines impose additional screening procedures, but they vary from company to company. Active pilots are required to have a medical screening once a year until they turn 40 and then twice a year after. Only when pilots are found to have mental health problems are they sent to a psychiatrist or psychologist for evaluation or treatment."
At first glance, an incident like the Germanwings disaster seems to call for increased physical and mental monitoring. But leaning harder on pilots would only fix half the problem.
The current system is punitive -- thus, it encourages lying.
"But the system, Dr. [Warren] Silberman [a former manager of aerospace medical certification for the FAA] and others said, leaves pilots on an honor system, albeit one reinforced by penalties to discourage them from concealing any health issues that could affect their fitness to fly, including mental illness. Pilots who falsify information or lie about their health face fines that can reach $250,000, according to the FAA."
Imagine yourself in that position. Knowing that public safety is at risk, you might do the right thing and step forward after your psychiatrist tells you that you shouldn't be working, as happened to Lubitz. Then again, you might not.
First of all, you might doubt the diagnosis. That's the thing about mental illness -- victims' judgment can be impaired. For example, there is evidence that Ronald Reagan suffered from early signs of dementia while serving as president. If true, that's scary -- but was the Gipper aware he was fading?
Second, you might think you could handle it, that with the help of psychiatric treatment and antidepressant medications, you could push through what might turn out to be a temporary crisis. Why risk everything over a passing phase?
Third, and this is likely, you might keep your problems to yourself because to do otherwise would ruin your life -- or at least feel like it. At bare minimum, it would end your career, forcing you to start from zero. For many people, that seems too horrible to bear. In our society, social status is determined by our careers.
"The stigma [of having a mental illness] is enormous," Dr. William Hurt Sledge, professor of psychiatry at Yale who has consulted for the FAA, the Air Line Pilots Association and major airlines, told the Times. "And of course, none of them wants that to be known, nor do they want to confess it or believe that they have it."
And for those who decide to ignore the stigma, what comes next? Where's the safety net, professional, social and economic, for people who run into trouble, whether of their own making or not?
At the root of Lubitz's decision to kill himself -- whether he gave much thought to the 149 people on the other side of the reinforced cockpit door cannot be known -- is that he lived, as we all do in the Western world, in a disposable society. Lose what you do and you lose what you are. The bills keep coming long after the paychecks stop; soon you have nothing left.
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