Yesterday, a press conference revealed that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz likely crashed Germanwings Flight 4U925 intentionally. Then, we were told, Lubitz had depression in the past and took time off training to try and deal with it. Meanwhile, an ongoing police investigation may have found suicide notes in the co-pilot’s home.
The Samaritans media guidelines are very clear on these issues. They beg the media not to “over-sensationalise” and “over-simplify”. They remind papers that “mental health problems are important influences” but “there is no simple explanation why someone chooses to die by suicide and it is rarely due to one particular factor”. For murder-suicide, they mention it is even more complicated. These guidelines aren’t unreasonable. After all, they were written in consultation with some of the best working journalists, including Jeremy Paxman.
Instead, The Daily Mail decided to obliterate nuance with just sixteen words; “Suicide pilot had long history of depression: WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?” Meanwhile, The Sun decided that the words “crazed”, “madman”, and “massacre” were appropriate for the event. These were the worst offenders, but as far as I can tell, of the national press only The Telegraph produced a completely unsensationalised headline.
With font this big, it isn’t hard to read between the British media’s lines: that those of us with mental health problems can never recover enough to take up positions of responsibility. The mentally ill are being painted as dangerous and untrustworthy. We are being told that, in the interest of others, we can never have the important responsibilities that come with a normal life.
The sheer awfulness of this logic can be seen to anyone who bothers to look. It neglects that every day, as a joint statement by mental health charities notes, hundreds of pilots with a history of depression fly without incident.
These headlines also ignore the most fundamental statistics we have about mental illness and societal risk. According to Time to Change, one in six adults will have a significant mental health problem at any given time. Yet there are only 50-70 cases of homicide a year involving people known to have a mental health problem. According to the British Crime Survey, only 1% of victims of violent crimes believe the violence happened because the offender was mentally ill. Mentally ill people are also less likely to kill a stranger than those without mental illness and more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. There is no evidence that people with mental health problems are more dangerous to society. In fact, a lot of it suggests the opposite.
Yet those with mental illness still have to defend ourselves against an insidious logic that implies depressed people shouldn’t be able to drive with passengers. We still face lower employment prospects, with a government survey finding that fewer than 40% of employers would consider hiring someone with a mental health problem, and the mentally ill are twice as likely to lose their jobs compared to the general population. There has never been a more clear-cut example of stigma. The headlines today will only make it worse.
In fact the only significant dangers we pose are to ourselves. 90 per cent of people who die through suicide in the UK were experiencing mental distress, and the suicide rate itself is rising steadily. Meanwhile a 2014 study found that fewer people were talking to others about their mental health. More than 50% said they wouldn’t want anyone else to know. These trends are no coincidence. If people do not feel able to talk about mental health with others, then they cannot be treated and are more likely to take their own lives. Stigma kills.
However, the media has not only increased the stigma around mental health, but also gnawed at the exact fears and anxieties that permeate many people who currently suffer from mental health issues. The Samaritans note that one of the key influences in suicide is “feeling desperate, helpless or without hope”. Opening your stories as The Daily Mail did, with a passage implying that the depressed will never recover, is dangerously counter-productive.
Today, papers like The Daily Mail and The Sun have shown all the nuance and insightfulness of a punch to the face. They have not demonstrated the added dangers that the mentally ill pose to society. There are none. Instead, an unprecedented and devastating murder-suicide is being used to beat us when we are already down.
The Samaritans UK can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90, or at http://www.samaritans.org
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