Two-step approach to preventing the next Germanwings disaster

March 31, 2015
A man pays his respects at the memorial for the victims of the air disaster in the village of Le Vernet

A man pays his respects at the memorial for the victims of the air disaster in the village of Le Vernet, near the crash site of the Germanwings Airbus A320. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

With the revelation that Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz had a history of mental illness, and in fact experienced “suicidal tendencies,” there will undoubtedly be calls for increased psychological testing of pilots, bus drivers, and other professionals whose jobs involve safeguarding passengers. While this might seem like a natural and necessary next step, in order for increased testing to actually save lives, it needs to happen in a way that doesn’t increase stigma around mental illness — and make people hide suicidal thoughts out of fear of losing their jobs.

Currently in the United States, only small or controlled populations are actively screened for suicidality outside of a doctor’s visit; these groups include students at schools after a suicide loss, active duty military personnel and prison inmates. The Federal Aviation Administration relies on self-reporting of suicidality, which rarely happens because pilots are worried that such disclosures will threaten their careers. (The FAA once banned pilots who disclosed a mental illness to their employer from flying. Today the agency allows some pilots who take certain antidepressants or have mild illnesses to continue flying.) Current German law also puts the burden of disclosure on pilots, who can choose to disclose their history to doctors, who determine whether the pilot is fit to fly.

Still, more people must be screened, regardless of their occupation.

“Screening normalizes the conversation,” says Dr. Kelly Posner, who developed the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale at Columbia University — a widely-used checklist that helps to determine a person’s risk of suicide. “We need to change the culture so that it becomes like taking your blood pressure — everybody gets asked and everybody deals with it.” Pushback against regular workplace screening has typically focused on privacy concerns, lack of standardized screening protocol, and the fact that most companies don’t have the capacity to appropriately respond to any suicidal thoughts they might discover.

Expanded workplace screenings would need to happen in tandem with privacy regulations for people to seek and receive help without the risk of losing their jobs. Currently, Title 1 of the Americans With Disabilities Act provides job protection to people with mental illness, unless the illness causes “undue hardship” on the business, or if the individual poses a “direct threat” to the safety of themselves or other employees. As industry considers wider screening, it is important that they be transparent about what will be done with any results. Drug testing in the workplace is understood and clear from the outset. Any suicide screening will need to be treated the same.

But screening is only the beginning of the cultural shift around mental illness that needs to take place, particularly for men. In the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 70 percent of suicide deaths are Caucasian males. (Ninety-six percent of commercial airline pilots are men, and the overwhelming majority of those men are white. Statistically speaking, if we go looking for mental illness among pilots, we’re going to find it.)

When the conversation about mass violence turns to descriptors like “criminal, mad, suicidal,” as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said of Germanwings pilot Lubitz, and many said after the Aurora, Newtown and Virginia Tech shootings, we shame those with mental illness and miss the opportunity to re-evaluate how we discover, manage and treat the illness itself.

One example of a successful approach to mental illness is the Air Force Suicide Prevention Program — a military effort to train commanders, troops and civilians in how to identify suicidal tendencies and help prevent colleagues from taking their lives.  The program, launched in 1996, led to record low numbers of suicide deaths, as well as a sharp reduction in homicide, accidental deaths and family violence. In addition to widespread mental-health screening, the program also shifted pre-existing cultural norms within the Air Force and helped reduce the stigma around mental illness.

Screenings can identify a suicidal person, but the actions taken after the screenings — making sure that help is available, working to build empathy and decrease stigma — will help to ensure that a tragedy like the Germanwings crash never happens again.

4 comments

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I won’t disagree with changing of culture around mental illness. However, let’s also not lump ‘suicidal’ people in with this lunatic.

Someone who goes off into the woods and takes their own life has a galaxy-wide degree of difference from someone who takes their own life and hundreds of others with him.

Redundancy systems are vastly more effective than some fantastical self-reporting system (which is what we have now) which would never get a psychopath like this to reveal their true intent/nature. Simple common sense practices would have saved 150+ lives. Any system can fail and while the rate of failure on airlines is ridiculously low compared to other ‘risks’ in life, that doesn’t mean we should ignore extremely simple, extremely easy to implement best practices to avoid these situations.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

Psychology is a flimsy science, and unable to predict such behaviors. People can just lie to the psychologists. The solution to this is electronic over-ride from the ground. Don’t allow a co-pilot to lock out a pilot and re-program altitude from 38,000 feet to ground over the alps. We can control drones from half a planed away. Make a drone over-ride option in every commercial plane. It’s not that complicated.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“Expanded workplace screenings would need to happen in tandem with privacy regulations for people to seek and receive help without the risk of losing their jobs.”

Isn’t the whole point that this guy SHOULD have lost his job? The title of the article is about preventing the next suicide-pilot disaster. Not making suicidal pilots feel cozy about themselves in a confidential therapeutic setting.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I would agree that not letting unstable poopushers be pilots is a great first step.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive