When an airplane goes down, it usually takes a long time before we know what happened. So it’s shocking on many levels that we already seem to be zeroing in on what happened to Germanwings flight 9525 just last week. The circumstances surrounding what appears to have been a brutal mass-murder have created a lot of questions, many focusing on mental illness. Mental illness is something that doesn’t get discussed enough, and this crash is just another in a long line of opportunities to try to find a way to better deal with this problem.
What we know for sure is that Germanwings 9525 was peacefully cruising at altitude when the captain left the cockpit. The first officer then put the aircraft into a relatively steep descent and aimed for the ground. When the captain tried to come back in through the locked, reinforced door, he couldn’t. The first officer had the ability to override anyone trying to get into the cockpit, and he did. Meanwhile, the first officer sat there, breathing regularly but saying nothing. As the captain repeatedly tried to get in, the airplane kept descending. Soon after, the full force of the aircraft struck a mountain and the aircraft was smashed into pieces, along with the remains of all those on board.
When any aircraft crashes, the natural question to ask is… how could we have prevented this? (Unless you’re a cable news network, in which case the natural question to ask is… how can I get better ratings by exploiting this?) Usually it’s something concrete to address, like a mechanical fix, new equipment, or better training. But this… this is different.
Yes, there are some concrete things that could be done here. For example, years ago, airlines in the US adopted the policy that there should always be two people in the cockpit at any given time. If one of the pilots has to leave to go to the bathroom, then a flight attendant must go up there. That wasn’t the case in Europe (though it’s quickly changing). But would that have stopped the first officer from plunging the aircraft into the ground? Maybe a flight attendant could have stopped him. Or maybe it would have allowed a flight attendant to open the door to let others in, and they could have stopped him. Maybe. It’s certainly a rule that should be in place because it can only help, but this is treating the symptom and not the cause of the problem.
The real problem here is mental illness. Now, we don’t know this person’s motivation for doing what he did, but the list of options isn’t very long. It could have been a suicide attempt that took everyone else along for the ride. It could have been an attempt at martyrdom, twistedly “fighting” for a cause that somehow, in his mind, justified the murder of so many people. Or maybe there was someone onboard he hated so much that he was willing to kill everyone else, including himself, to end that person’s life. The reason doesn’t matter. What matters is that no matter what the reason, this crash was caused by mental illness.
You would naturally expect that airlines would have strict standards regarding mental illness during hiring. After all, a pilot has a tremendous responsibility. It’s the kind of job that should require a certain level of mental fitness. For many airlines, that is something evaluated during hiring, but it can’t end there. Pilots at a major airline tends to be there until the government makes them retire. Mental illness can show itself at different times in a person’s life. There should be regular attention paid to identifying and treating illness throughout the career of a pilot, and everyone else. That does not seem to happen in the airline industry.
We do need to keep this in perspective. You can count on your fingers the number of crashes that have been caused by a pilot deliberately plunging an aircraft into the ground. But those incidents are a small subset of the number of tragedies that occur around the world every day due to mental illness. Just look at all the school shootings that happen in the US. So even if the number of crashes caused by mental illness isn’t great, it is still a big problem that needs to be addressed. Everyone reading this probably knows someone who has a mental illness of some sort. As for me, remember my trip to the Bay Area in February? That was to go to my younger cousin Danny’s funeral after he committed suicide. This is something that has impacted all of us in one way or another.
So what we can do? We can make treatment for mental illnesses readily accessible. Make sure everyone knows that mental illnesses are real illnesses and that that people can get help. Make sure health plans include good mental illness coverage. And do everything possible to eliminate the stigma involved with someone being considered mentally ill. The more we talk about it and the easier we make it to get treatment, then the better chance we have of avoiding awful, murderous incidents like the one we just witnessed last week.
Will this guarantee that something like this Germanwings crash never happens again? No. There are very smart people with mental illnesses who are very good at hiding them from others, and the risk, no matter how remote, is always there. But the more we do to make people understand that a mental illness isn’t their fault and is treatable, the better chance we have of helping them before they can do harm to themselves or others.