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Friday, 27 March 2015

Let's Talk About Mental Health

When the Germanwings flight 9525 smashed into the French Alps on Tuesday, the routine investigative journalism followed suit with suggestions of poor weather and terrorism. The revelations yesterday that the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, resulted in a deluge of articles about depression, many of which were problematic.

On the way to work this morning I heard an aviation safety expert talking about the fact that there are very few checks on the mental health of flight staff. This is generally attributed to the difficulty in assessing mental health, though other factors like cost and effectiveness are certainly important. The state of Lubitz at the time, as well as his history with depression, have become the centre of attention.

While it is a sensational story (and a tragedy), mental health carries many stigmas today. Both on social media and in articles from reputable journalists there has been an emphasis on shaming Lubitz for his depression. Before I go any further, I will say that handling depression by flying an airpline full of passengers into the side of a mountain is not an appropriate option. What I want to talk about here is not the violent final act, but the context in which it took place - in shame and secrecy.

To me it is unfortunate that we support Bell's Let's Talk campaign about mental health but then fall into the trappings of shaming people with mental health problems. Depression is real. Just because it cannot be easily observed, diagnosed, treated, or quantified doesn't mean it is not to be taken seriously (or outright rejected).

Attitudes that depression is a sign of weakness promote the further desire to keep it secret. If people can't get help, or will lose their jobs because of it, then the culture of secrecy continues. In the case of Lubitz, a voluntary disclosure system which would allow him leave from work would have prevented him from flying the plane without him losing his career. These are the types of changes that we need to contemplate, and we have to move beyond characterising Lubitz by his depression.

The reality is that depression is the most common form of mental illness. In some form or another, virtually everyone is affected by depression. Accurate statistics are hard to come by, but we all experience significant changes in mood and character. According to the CMHA, 8 per cent of Canadians experience serious depression and suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people from adolescence to middle age.

Plenty of people with depression live very productive lives. They can be our greatest artists, our leaders of commerce, and our loved ones. It comes down to getting support in the time of need - help without reprisal. So let's get real about mental health and stop stigmatising people who already feel like they don't have many options.

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