As reports emerge overnight that Andreas Lubitz apparently suffered from depression and that he was having relationship problems, I have to wonder: Should a depressed pilot be allowed to fly? Should someone going through emotional turmoil and pain be in a position of responsibility for hundreds of people’s lives?
And I’m not just talking about pilots… Anyone responsible for a transportation vehicle — such as train engineers, subway conductors, and bus drivers — has the power to cause great havoc (and possibly even death) if they’re upset and not thinking clearly.
The Germanwings crash that resulted in the deaths of 150 people is a tragedy. But one that can be prevented in the future if we open our eyes to depression — and other mental illness — in the workplace.
The German daily Bild has the story, as reported by Expatica:
But a troubled man apparently hid behind that guy-next-door image.
Lubitz sought psychiatric help for “a bout of serious depression” in 2009 and was still getting assistance from doctors, Bild daily said, quoting documents from Germany’s air transport regulator Luftfahrtbundesamt (LBA).
He was still receiving regular medical treatment, Bild reported, adding that Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa had transmitted this information to the LBA.
The paper also cited security sources as saying that Lubitz and his girlfriend were having a “serious crisis in their relationship” that left him heartbroken and distraught.
Another news report stated that in a search of Lubitz’s home, German prosecutors had found “medical documents that suggest an existing illness and appropriate medical treatment”, including “torn-up and current sick leave notes, among them one covering the day of the crash.”
In other words, his doctor had given him the day off. Yet, I suspect because of doctor-patient confidentiality laws, the doctor couldn’t communicate his concerns directly to the airline. So Lubitz is accused of “hiding” his illness from his employer.
We’ve all experienced the emotional turmoil of a relationship ending. And many of us have experienced the deep, never-ending darkness that is depression. I’m not sure someone who has a lot of responsibility should be going into work on days where they’re dealing with this kind of emotional upset or sadness. And few people have more responsibility for the life and safety of dozens of lives than a pilot.
A Few Possible Fixes
The good news is that I believe we can prevent rare tragedies like this from1 occurring in the future.
First, requiring two people in the cockpit at all times seems like a simple action that can help reduce the possibility of this happening in the future (and one already used by airlines in the U.S.). Many European air carriers have already instituted this new rule across the continent.
Second, requiring pilots — and other transportation drivers of buses, trains, subways and such — to undergo regular psychological evaluations also seems like a good idea. People in a position of responsibility for the safety and security of dozens of lives should be held to a higher standard than a driver of a single vehicle.
Third, there should be clear exceptions to doctor-patient confidentiality laws, when a doctor or therapist has specific concerns about a person’s emotional stability. If a doctor is writing a patient a note about taking the day off, that seems like information that should be in the hands of a special HR person designated within each company to ensure that employee does indeed take the day off. This designee doesn’t necessarily need to know the specifics, just that the person is excused from work for a few days.
A person who is in emotional turmoil may not be thinking clearly or rationally. Why do we continue to expect such a person to share the doctor’s note with their employer voluntarily, knowing the punitive actions that may be taken against them? It makes no sense to me.
All of these fixes are fairly easy to implement, and would help ensure transportation companies are a part of the solution in helping keeping passengers safe. They may not prevent every possible future tragedy, but they’d go a long way to help identifying problems before they turn into something far worse.
Hiding from Mental Health Issues
As a society, we need to stop hiding from mental health issues like clinical depression. We need to stop penalizing people who step up and say, “Look, I suffer from depression, but I’m in treatment and getting help for it.” (It’s not clear at this point whether Lubitz was in active treatment, or had a current diagnosis of clinical depression.)
Employers need to show the same kind of compassion and allowances for a diagnosis of depression or other mental illness as they would show for someone just diagnosed with cancer or MS. It doesn’t mean they need to be punished for acknowledging their mental health concerns, as long as they are getting help for them. A pilot or bus driver shouldn’t experience discrimination just because of their diagnosis.
This is an opportunity to have a real conversation about these issues. I hope something good can come from this tragedy, opening the door to such discussions.
Our hearts and prayers go out to the victims of Germanwings Flight 9525.
Read the full story: Germanwings crash probe turns on co-pilot’s ‘depression’
- It is very rare for a person who is suicidal, as Lubitz arguably appears to have been, in committing an act that would take other people’s lives along with their own. [↩]