Thinking About Mental Illness and the Crash of Germanwings Flight 9525

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 Germanwings In Deep Sorrowoverride 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.

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65 Comments on "Thinking About Mental Illness and the Crash of Germanwings Flight 9525"

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Neil S.
Guest
I agree with everything you said. It’s an issue that doesn’t get discussed enough, and apparently is an easy source of funding to cut in tough times, which is wrong. Much has been made in the past week about the right to privacy, and that a mental illness can’t or shouldn’t be reported to the employer. Or that if it were reported, the people in need of help wouldn’t seek help. I think there are some jobs that trump the individual’s right to privacy. The President. The military. Maybe pilots as well? What if the airline hired the doctors and… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

At least in the US this is handled by having the employee go to a company hired doctor, who then reports to a Medical Responsibility Officer. (At least I think that’s the title) The MRO then can discuss the results with the employee and/or take action such as suspending the employee from duty or having a restricted workload.

Flyingspindoctor
Guest
The burden of reporting medical issues with the FAA is via the FAA form a pilot fills out when they go for a required medical. When the pilot signs the form, s/he is also signing that the FAA has free access to that pilots medical records. Realizing that pilots have already given up rights to privacy — perhaps the FAA needs to word-scan pilot medical records looking for signs that indicate that a pilot might be under medical stress that can impact that pilots ability to fly airplanes. The form also list that pilots’ employer the FAA can then notify… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Turning this over to a computer to word scan a file is a horrible idea.

What happens when a doctor discusses a long ago suicide attempt? Something like this makes it less likely, not more likely that someone would get help.

Flyingspindoctor
Guest
Nick, Connect the idea with the MRO idea that we already have for drug/alcohol testing to screen out issues you share may smooth out the bad. In the end — the FAA already has access to the pilots health and driving record. Just how they access the information is up to them. My experience with FAA Aeromedical is that they are very smart and understand medical issues for pilots. If they need more information from a pilot on a specific medical issue that the pilot as already filed as “Previously Reported” or a pilot has failed to report, the FAA… Read more »
Jim M
Guest

Great post. I don’t know how to create a safety net for people who have mental illness to get help. . . and then? I mean this guy’s career was as a pilot and apparently if you are mentally ill what happens next?? Can you get treatment, or is it time for a new career? What is the threshold, testing? I have no answers, but its just sad (and as someone who flies a bit scary).

SEAN
Guest

One of the first questions I would ask is… what psych meds was this pilot prescribed? It is not well known, but if you read up on the side effects on the various medications, you will be shock on how dangerous they can be regardless of their Importance .

A few good sources include Medline.com & drugs.com. It’s time to get educated.

Keith
Guest

I agree with Sean.

Many types of drugs can have severe side effects. They don’t even have to be meds being taken for depression/psysch reasons.

In a recent article in Discover magazine, they show how a woman taking steroids for asthma almost commits suicide.

(the tag line for the article is below).

VITAL SIGNS
From Asthma to Suicidal Thoughts?
A healthy, stable woman with asthma suddenly finds herself considering suicide despite landing a dream job in a city she loves. What went wrong?

SEAN
Guest
Cranky, This was well stated – 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… Read more »
XlF42
Guest
One important fact is, that you can (almost) always crash a system from the inside. – a key security guy in a nuclear power plant will be able to allow theft of dangerous materials – a developer of a software company will be able to sell knowledge to a competitor – a F/O will be able to crash a plane somewhere in the mountains – [others] Of course, there will be some way of punishment afterwards, but the damage is done. Even worse, the more educated people need to be, the more they will have the brains to outsmart the… Read more »
SEAN
Guest

Be careful here – don’t conflate suicide with criminal activity even if mental illness is involved in both situations.

None
Guest

Mass murder is criminal activity.

Nick Barnard
Member

We don’t yet know if this is mass murder.

There is an investigation process that should be followed. Prematurely hanging the pilot in this case is a disservice to that process and to anyone involved.

We want instant answers, but there will be a very complete report that will be issued by the European authorities. Until that report was issued, this is an airplane crash and the reason for that crash is unknown.

SirWired
Guest
This is a difficult problem with no easy solution. Firstly, we must acknowledge the fact that mental illness is trivial to hide from a doctor. Utterly trivial. As part of a clinical study once I had to go through a full mental-health diagnostic questionnaire. It was blindingly obvious (as you would expect) how to answer the 200-some questions “correctly” to avoid a diagnosis of anything wrong at all. If we automatically yank anybody that seeks mental illness treatment out of the cockpit and toss them on the proverbial bread line, few pilots will ever seek treatment, period. But a “free… Read more »
james
Guest

Yes and no – More complicated tests have enough questions and “failsafes” built into the questions and variances of the questions that you can’t trick it but giving the “correct” answers, or what one would expect.

I have a relative that’s a psychologist – and one rainy afternoon I volunteered to take the MMPI test. I answered them all in the “right” way but was very surprisingly at how it parsed out my already known personality traits..

dan powers
Guest
This guy fell thru the cracks…his girlfriend said he made suicidal comments, and had dreams of flying planes into mountains. Besides in the USA you will not see (for now) any pilot with 600 hrs in the right seat of an a320…you need at least 1500hrs to fly in a 50 seat CRJ-200 or DHC-8-400. More experienced pilots give the system more time to weed out this type of misfit…there are checks and balances in the system. LLC in their thirst to expand and sell cheap tickets pay Ultra low wages, and hire immature pilots= like the 18 yr old… Read more »
A
Guest
Wholly agree that this F/O had no business sitting up front in an A320. 600 hours is 75 eight hour days. Even for relatively safe jobs where you aren’t responsible for the safety of 150+ persons you are far from second in command with that level of experience. That said, another issue I see is knee jerk reactions to 9/11. Of course we want to keep terrorists out of the cockpit but sadly we now have good reason for being able to access that space if necessary. Fair to say that there is no way to build an aircraft for… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

A – your comments are treading line of being offensive to those of us who struggle with mental illness.

Nick Barnard
Member
CF – Thank you for your deft handling of this issue. I’ve trended toward the IFALPA’s Statement: Leaking premature, unanalyzed, and partial CVR recordings, which lack the context of the entire body of factual investigative data, severely interferes with the investigative process, and can only lead to early conclusions on what exactly occurred during the time leading up to the accident. Any other use of CVR data is not only invalid, but is an unacceptable invasion of privacy best described as a search for sensationalism and voyeurism of the worst kind. – From: http://www.ifalpa.org/downloads/Level1/Press%20&%20Media/2015/15PRL13%20-%20Germanwings%204U9525%20accident%20investigation_IFALPA%20strongly%20condemns%20leaking%20of%20CVR%20data.pdf As someone who has lived with… Read more »
SEAN
Guest

Second. This is such a tutchy issue & it must be handled with care.

On a personal note – I know a family where there was abuse in the home & both children mentioned directly or indirectly to me they wanted to kill them selves. Granted this was almost two decades ago & I don’t know what happened to either one. I need to add that both of them were going blind at a young age do to anaridia, a rare genetic disorder that causes cateracs & glockoma early in life.

Dale
Guest

I agree with Nick Barnard but I think this should not be limited to airline pilots. I think this should be the policy for all safety-sensitive positions at least in the transportation including railroad engineers, bus drivers and truck drivers. True, someone in the cockpit of a large commercial airliner puts more lives at risk and can do more damage but a deranged driver of a tanker truck full of fuel or hazmat can make life plenty miserable in a large metro area.

Peter Mac
Member

Well stated, and well written. Thank you

Curly Howard
Guest
Cranky, First I would like to express my sympathies at the loss of your cousin. I, like 98% of the population only read about mental health. That is until I began to date a woman (now my wife) who experienced mental and sexual abuse in her first marriage. Every Wednesday she was always busy and after we became close was she willing to tell me she was seeking help. I actually went with her thinking it was like the old Bob Newhart show. I became a little educated with pain people experience. Why isn’t this as open as someone who… Read more »
arizona2002
Guest

another speculative article; the paragraph beginning “The real problem here….” is judgmental; it would have been best left out making the article at best benign. Does Crancky need to weigh in on everything?

john96
Member

It’s Cranky’s blog, which he graciously stimulates conversation for free, so yes, he gets to to weigh in on anything he wants.

SEAN
Guest

Not only that, if he makes an error this is the best forum to correct without being combative. This should be about education & not about passing judgement.

JayDub
Member
When I was a struggling young professional pilot I really hated the fact the U.S. airlines didn’t have widespread “ab initio” programs like most major European Flag Carriers. Now after this incident and Air France 447, I’m really grateful I came up in a system that valued internship. For those that don’t remember, the IRO on Air France 447 was heard asking the FO what the static discharge was on the windscreen as they approached the thunderstorm. St. Elmo’s fire, as it is commonly referred to. It’s a sad fact any person that is responsible for an A-330 flying across… Read more »
fd
Guest
Hmm. What to do in the case of mass murder committed by a mentally ill person? Ban the airliners! For the children! Don’t we all have a right not to be killed by large airliners?! No one really NEEDS an airliner, after all! Government should ban all aircraft with more than two seats! Two seats should be more than enough for anyone! Anyone who is in favor of airliners is in favor of mass murder! Glad to hear cranky advocating for better mental health treatment options. Just like the NRA does after every mass shooting.
Tory
Member
A silver lining from this tragedy might be if inspired aircraft manufacturers and airlines to begin experimenting with full autopilot (probably in combination with a single human pilot, at least to start, and maybe eventually with remote pilots on the ground for backup, like drones). My understanding is that the technology already exists to do this, and it’s a simpler problem than self-driving cars (fewer potential collisions) which Google has shown is very doable. Start with them at the cargo carriers, and expand to passenger airlines from there. There is widespread acceptance that self-driving cars will dramatically reduce the accident… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

I’m all about computers, I think they’re great things. But not every potential problem can be forseen and have software engineers design around it.

SJ
Member
There is already a huge amount of automation on aircraft, but the problem is that as long as there’s a human pilot involved, there will be a manual override to turn of the autopilot, and as long as there’s a way to turn off the autopilot, there will be a means for these types of tragedies to occur. You would have to completely take control away from the pilot, but there are enough unique situations that the AI can’t handle yet that I would not be comfortable with preventing the pilot from overriding the autopilot. As for a ground-controlled option,… Read more »
Tory
Member

My thought would be that anytime there is an anomaly as detected by on-board systems, an on-the-ground pilot on standby would instantly see everything, have full comms with the cockpit, and have the ability to take control at the flip of a switch. The added benefit of this system is that a “mission control” on the ground could have multiple staff that could concur to allow the override (not a single human decision), as well as specialists in various systems to assist with diagnostics, similar to NASA’s mission control.

Tory
Member

This would have prevented 9/11 as well, btw…

JuliaZ
Member

… Unless and until the terrorists or suicidal/murderous people train their way into those control centers.

Tory
Member

Securing a single control center is a heck of a lot easier than securing thousands of airplanes…

Nick Barnard
Member

I’d rather have multiple distributed commands (In the cockpits) than one or two distributed commands.

Its a standard in the computing (and other) industries, to distribute the points of failure. You want to have at least one main site, plus a backup site.

I don’t like the idea of taking the pilots out of control. How many people commit suicide with their cars and take someone else with them? We still let people drive cars and the requirements to get a driver license are much, much lower than those to get a pilot’s license.

Tory
Member

Cranky, would love to see you write about a system like this, which I think would get attention from all of the major players…

Keith
Guest
Tory, Apparently you have never heard of hacking when it comes to computers or computer links. People can hack secure installation such as Target, Chase bank, and even the government. ANYTHING software driven can be hacked. It would be even easier to do it with your proposal since the command and control from the ground would be broadcast on a radio frequency that anyone could intercept and/or jam and/or spoof. With your idea, what you could have is good flight crews NOT being able to control their aircraft. And, since this could be done with more than one aircraft at… Read more »
pddee
Member
Thanks for the nicely put-together item we all see a a nightmare from last week. How tragic! I fly frequently enough to know the pattern in place here in the US regarding the pilots coming out for a restroom break at least once along the trip with one of the flight attendants going in the cockpit to always have at least two folks up front. I’ve often wondered why the plane makers couldn’t put some some of bathroom facility on the other side of the locked door for the use of those in the cockpit as those facilities aren’t very… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Perhaps the cockpit door should just open into the forward lav. That’d allow flight crews to reach the lav without having to do that dance up front.. (Although oy, that probably has enough security issues with it as well.

Jonathon N
Member
Boiling down to the root cause of the root cause here (if such a thing exists), the question is why isn’t society discussing mental illness. The reason in my opinion is that those who are actually inflicted with the varying degrees of mental illness do not feel safe discussing it publicly. The very people who should be driving the conversation feel like they will be labeled, ostracized, and careers ruined if they speak up. Therefore the conversation is left to politicians and experts and God knows what happens there. Mental illness is so widely misunderstood even by doctors that I… Read more »
Jonathon N
Member

Oh and as a follow up on the fears those with mental illness face about being labeled, ostracized, and careers ruined, they are absolutely right to fear that. Then that fear in itself often provides more fuel to the fire that is the mental illness and a vicious cycle begins.

SEAN
Guest

Well stated.

As I read your above remarks, I remembered an issue involving the oldest daughter of someone I know who suffers from debilitating anxiety & has been dealing with this since she was about 18. The unfortunate thing about this was she ended up in some religious cult & they exploited her situation & stated that her mental illness was a result of devil possession. Thankfully her mom got her help.

I point this out to illustrate one example all be it extreme how easily the mentally ill can be taken advantage of & it must change now

Eric A.
Member
It saddens me that we are having another post-event conversation about mental health. The public, pundits and politicians call for action while resources become scarcer and treatment is still stigmatized. We have heard this narrative before; after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, Aurora, Oslo, etc. A 2011 Duke University study cites a conundrum of mental illness diagnosis being over inclusive and under inclusive at the same time. People can be blocked from performing certain duties over mental crisis that happened years ago and are in full remission with ongoing treatment. Others can be in the early stages of a mental health… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Eric, thank you for saying this.

Not directly related to mental health, but I recall when the FDIC strengthened their protections against people with criminal pasts from working in the banking industry, it caught people with small petty crimes that they committed decades ago as a teenager. One man lost his job over stealing $10 thirty or so years ago. We have to be mindful of regulations that don’t have any flexibility in them.

Larry
Guest

A lot of talk about, “Now pilots need to be psychologically evaluated”. Ok but who is going to psychologically evaluate the Psychologist? There’s a true story in the airline business that Delta for years during the interview process had each pilot psychologically evaluated. Many potential great candidates were turned down simply by the Psychologist. A few years later that psychologist put a bullet in his head. Point being we can’t go down that slippery slope of creating a “Minority Report” pilot career environment. Fortunately things like this are rare in the business.

swintner
Member
Larry, fair point… but I think the answer lies somewhere in between. No one psychologist should have the power to unilaterally decide, based upon his/her subjective clinical opinion, whether or not a pilot is fit for duty. Unfortunately, while mental illness is just as real as any other illness, diagnosis and treatment can be more complex and far less clear-cut. Perhaps one approach would be (just for example) that pilots be screened by one mental health practitioner and, if that initial screening results in any concern, the pilot be referred for a second opinion. If screenings were regular (and not… Read more »
jaybru
Member
Awful situation, but these are not things that just “fall through the cracks.” Somebody, lots of people know, and have tried. What could we have done? If you live long enough you will have expreienced an awful lot related to suicide, and worse, murder- suicide, if you think about it. Be it with with relatives, bossess, fellow workers, people who have worked for you, very close friends, some of whou you just never knew, and others for you knew it was just a matter of time…. Consider the aviation communtiy, no different. If you have close friends who are pilots,… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

For what it’s worth those smaller planes can do quite a bit less damage than a 757 or even a DC-9.

Sent from my computer that moonlights as a phone. Please forgive any misspellings or terseness.

MeanMeosh
Guest
This topic hits a little too close to home. A person very close to me has been battling mental illness for pretty much her entire life, but unfortunately didn’t receive proper treatment because in our culture, things like depression are often considered the fault of the person with the illness and aren’t taken seriously by families. She eventually reached a breaking point and became a threat to herself, at which point she realized she needed proper help and I helped her start getting the treatment she needed. Nine years later, she is still battling her illness, but through proper medication,… Read more »
Leslie in Oregon
Member

I couldn’t agree more, MeanMeosh. With adequate support (including a pervasive societal commitment and action to help), almost every person with mental illness can become a valuable and valued member of society.

Thank you for creating a forum for this discussion, Cranky. I am very sorry for your cousin’s pain and your family’s grief at his death.

SYVJEFF
Member
MeanMeosh- Well written and expressed as I was once married to a woman with bipolar for almost five years. I entered the marriage young and with knowledge of her condition as she was managing it with effective medication. However things changed, her meds were changed by her doctor, a close family member passed, and her psychiatrist retired. Plus laws here in the states changed where she in writing block me as her spouse to attend her meetings with her new doctor. Our marriage took a turn for the worse and it ended. Mental illness is not a linear condition like… Read more »
Christian
Guest

You have a point there. I guess making sure that all pilots and even the crew should have like a certification that they are not mentally ill before the go on-duty. It’s not the real big time solution but it can help prevent these types of accidents. Damage control as they said. And then, follow through. Examining continuously will really help in the evaluation if a crew is fit to work or not.

JuliaZ
Member
Brett, I’m really sorry that you lost your cousin to suicide but thank you for telling us about it. The best way to make it easier to talk about mental illness and its sometimes-tragic consequences is to talk about it more openly. I was diagnosed with major depression 22 years ago. With the help of simple, daily medication, I lead a productive life and most people don’t know that about me. Pilots can suffer these problems just like anyone, and with good treatment, I don’t believe it makes them unsafe to fly. Can’t wait to fly again! It is much… Read more »
kelty
Member
I am a recently retired neuropsychologist and a former private pilot. I applaud the attention that Cranky and his followers are giving to the issues of mental illness, as well as the effects of stress in everyday life. It is reported that the German pilot had depressive episodes with suicidal thoughts. Depression is a complex array of issues. It is not unusual for any of us to be depressed after the loss of a loved one, or even being slighted at work. At the other extreme, some people may have delusional ideas and even commit suicide. In between, there are… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Kelty, thank you for writing and sharing this.

Scramble
Guest
A second crew member in the flight deck (unless it is another pilot) is unlikely to prevent this extraordinarily rare event from recurring. Normally, the second crew member is a non-pilot flight attendant who, while very important to the safe conduct of the flight, would probably not be able to prevent a suicidal pilot from crashing the plane. On the other hand, secondary barriers could POTENTIALLY prevent it. Secondary barriers are additional doors installed between the passenger cabin and the forward galley, only closed in flight when the flight deck door is open, and allow the flight deck door to… Read more »
dan pink
Guest

according to Ockham’s Razor (and also according to Bayes Theorem) the most likely hypothesis is that the co-pilot was unconscious, and the plane descended by remote control.

If the plane descended by remote control, it is then certain that the co-pilot was disabled intentionally, e.g. by a gas piped into the cabin.

The story about the mentally ill co-pilot is likely to be a ruse – and as phony as the story that appeared in the press couple of weeks later, than the co-pilot may have put laxatives in the pilot’s coffee, to make him go to the toilet.

Nick Barnard
Member

True.. But how does Occam’s razor account for the reported statement that the first officer was denying the captain entrance to the cockpit?

dan pink
Guest

By the only accounts we have (which are largely false if we assume that the first officer was not involved in crashing the plane), the first officer said nothing and did not reply. On this evidence, I would assume that he was unconscious as the most likely option.

There may have been accounts that the first officer locked the door with a time lock. How credible are these accounts?

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