After the crash of the Germanwings plane in the Alps on March 25, members of the media (specifically NPR’s David Schaper) have called audiences to consider banning individuals from becoming pilots that have sought treatment for mental illness in the past. This would be a discriminatory move, an over generalization of the issue and just overall wrong. The actions of one ill person does not reflect the behaviors of an entire group. Although the crash is a tragedy, there are other ways to prevent tragedies like this from happening without discriminating against an entire group.
If this ban were to become reality, rather than go to a doctor and get treated for their disorders, people will avoid getting diagnosed in fear of the inability to get a job. Such a ban could result in the medical records of pilots being revealed to the public so their mental health history could be checked. Klaus-Peter Siegloch, head of the German Aviation Association, emphasized the importance of confidentiality regarding a pilot’s medical records. “I believe if there is a lifting of doctor-patient confidentiality, then possibly pilots will not trust in medical doctors and that will make the situation worse,” he told CNN.com.
Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot that crashed Germanwings Flight 9525, was seeing five or six doctors simultaneously for the weeks leading up to the crash, telling them that he was afraid of losing his pilot’s license because of his medical issues, according to CNN.com. His doctor gave him a “not fit to work” notice which was never given to Lubitz’ employer. So Lubitz, specifically, was not fit to work in any job, including piloting, as warranted by a doctor, but he ignored that warning. This is not the fault of everyone who has or had a mental disorder, it’s the fault of Lubitz who ignored the “not fit to work” notice.
Discriminating against people with mental illness adds to the stigma of having one. Whenever there is a tragedy committed by someone with a mental illness, everyone is quick to point fingers at the disorder rather than pay attention to other circumstances that led up to the event. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not character. People with mental illnesses do not have higher violent crime rates than “normal” people, according to Dr. Gary Greenberg, a practicing psychotherapist. He explains that one in three Americans have the qualifications to be diagnosed with a mental disorder at any given time and 50 percent of Americans meet the criteria to be diagnosed at a low point in their life.
Other factors can serve as warning signs of violence besides mental illness. An analysis of a tablet device belonging to Andreas Lubitz said that he researched suicide methods and information about cockpit doors, according to a German prosecutor on CNN.com. That search should have been frightening to the airline. Rather than banning people with mental illness from getting jobs as pilots, search histories of pilots should be flagged if they’re looking up something dangerous. That’s not to say that pilots’ internet usage should be monitored at all times, but certain keywords should raise concern.
It’s conceivable that someone could acquire a mental illness because they work a stress inducing job, like that of a pilot. Some people are predisposed to illness under conditions of moderate stress, according to “Psychosocial Factors and Stress,” an article in the Encyclopedia of Stress. It would be unfair, to say the least, to fire someone from their job due to health issues they acquired on the job.
Although it would be unfair to prohibit everyone with mental illnesses from being a pilot, there are exceptions. People with diseases that cause psychosis, delusions, or hallucinations should not be pilots because someone who is hallucinating isn’t acting according to the reality of their surroundings. But not all diseases cause hallucinations. The Encyclopedia of Psychology and Law states,“Of all the mental disorders currently recognized by clinicians and researchers, most are not deemed psychoses.” Someone with a non-psychotic mood disorder does not hallucinate and therefore is as capable as anyone else to do the work assigned to them, unless specified otherwise by a doctor. Those who have a “not fit to work” order on them should not be flying planes, or doing any work, due to doctors’ orders.
Rather than banning the mentally ill from being pilots, there should be protocols in place to be sure that someone with a “not fit to work” notice isn’t flying a plane and that “not fit to work” notices don’t fall through the cracks. At the time being, the only way airlines know about mental illness is if pilots report their own condition. A psychological examination is not included in a yearly or 6-month physical examination, according to CBS News. For pilots deemed too ill to work, a paid sick leave would be useful to prevent them from crashing a plane on the job, but a pilot would be intimidated to see a doctor if they knew they would lose their income because of their illness. If a firing has to be done, the pilot should receive Workers Compensation if the mood disorder developed because of the job, just like any other injury that leads to loss of work.
The actions of one pilot suffering from depression should not place a stigma on similar mental illnesses as they’re common in any stressful career field. It’s not justified to punish everyone with a mental illness just for being ill or someone else with the same disease did something horrible.
Liv Reeb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org