Stigma

On the 24th of March, a Germanwings flight from Spain to Germany crashed into a mountain in the French Alps. All 150 people on board the aircraft were killed. This catastrophe was, unfortunately, no accident. Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked the captain out of the cockpit during the flight and intentionally crashed the plane. Why would Lubitz do this? It’s thought that his actions were driven, at least in part, by mental illness. He had been treated for suicidal tendencies in the past, and prior to the flight, had received a letter informing him that he had been deemed unfit for work by a doctor.

Amidst the media storm surrounding this disaster, professional shit-stirrer British journalist Katie Hopkins felt it necessary to inform the world of her views on the situation, and consequently, mental illnesses in general, via her Twitter account. Of the Germanwings disaster, she had this to say:

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In my eyes, the opinions Hopkins voices here are deeply problematic. First of all, I want to make it clear that I do not think that the action taken by Lubitz was in any way right. What happened was a tragedy. First of all, I do not condone suicide and I especially do not think that Lubitz’ decision to take 149 others with him when he decided to end his own life was in any way right. His actions had severe and lasting consequences, not only for himself and the others on board that flight, but all of their friends and family, as well as his own. Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problems.

However, situations like this are often not a simple case of black and white. Lubitz was not a villain. His actions – though terrible and scary and wrong – were in all likelihood not malicious. Investigations into the crash did not turn up any possible religious or political motivations for Lubitz’ decision. He was mentally ill.

And the harsh truth is this: mental illness can cause you to do things that a rational, mentally healthy you never would. A suicidal person is probably not capable of making decisions and anticipating the consequences of their actions in the same way that someone who is not suicidal can. When you’re suicidal, you’re in this awful and all-consuming mindstate which makes you feel numb towards the world around you. You want out, and some people are driven to extremes to make that happen.

I’m not arguing that Lubitz’ actions should be excused. I’m simply arguing that they should be understood in the context of mental illness. I’d like to suggest that perhaps they are also indicative of the problems caused by societal stigma towards mental illnesses, and how difficult this stigma makes it to speak out and say, “I’m unwell. I need help.”

Hopkins, however (who, by the way, is known to make controversial statements about topics of which she has little understanding), disagrees. She thinks that depression isn’t an illness, and that stigma towards mental illnesses is, like, not even a thing.

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I hope I don’t need to explain to you why it’s not only problematic, but also really scary that there are actual people out there who actually have these opinions. Shitslingers like Hopkins are doing absolutely nothing to help those who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses (and consequently to help prevent future disasters like the Germanwings incident); they’re only making it harder for mentally ill people to be open about their struggles and to ask for help. There is no stigma, she says – the irony of that statement being that she is indulging in and perpetuating the very stigma she says is nonexistent.

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Or could it be that perhaps, over the past ten years, understanding and awareness of mental illnesses has increased, and mentally ill people are feeling more comfortable with seeking medical help for very real health problems?

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That’s awesome that you’re on top of your epilepsy, Katie, and that it’s not making you depressed. However, you are not everyone. Everyone is different. And, need I point out, epilepsy is not depression. I am one of many, many people for whom antidepressants have made a massive, positive health change. I literally would not be who I am today without them. I love my antidepressants, because they correct the chemical imbalances in my brain that caused me to be incredibly anxious and have regular panic attacks for so long. And more than that: I need them to be healthy. And that’s cool. For me, that’s fucking awesome.

It’s great you can take control of your own health problems. However, please don’t assume that everyone else can or should be able to do exactly as you did. Maybe let’s leave those kinds of assessments to medical professionals.

So, what can we take from all this?

Anneli Tiirik was the girlfriend of one of the victims of the Germanwings crash. In an article posted on www.mirror.co.uk, she was quoted as saying this about the situation.

“Instead of blaming sick people and trying to understand their motives from the perspective of a healthy mind, we should concentrate on changing the system that enables such people to be in positions of power.

“Treating mental illnesses with the same seriousness as physical ones early on, instead of heaping judgment and shame on people, could help prevent tragedies like this plane crash in the future.”

The level of understanding and empathy she displays here is amazing, and I think it’s something we could all learn from. In terms of helping to end the stigma surrounding mental health, here are a few places I think we can start:

  • Start a conversation. Whether you’re a sufferer or supporter, share your thoughts and experiences regarding mental illness. You can do this with those around you, or on social media – wherever you can make yourself heard.
  • Encourage constructive action such as seeking medical help and attending counselling or therapy.
  • If you suffer from a mental illness, try to be as open and honest as you can about your illness. Even though it’s hard, try to stand up and say, “I am unwell. This is real.” It will help other sufferers to feel less alone, and may even lead to you widening your support network as you see how many people care and believe in the integrity of what you are going through.
  • If you don’t suffer from a mental illness, listen when others speak about their mental health struggles, and try to understand what they are going through. It can be hard to empathize if you haven’t experienced a mental illness firsthand, as I discussed in last week’s post. However, even if you can’t understand what they’re going through, at least believe in the honesty of what they’re saying. Let them know you believe that they really are sick, and that you’re here to offer whatever support you can.

Mentally ill and mentally healthy people need to work together to fight the stigma. Only with each other’s support and understanding can we hope to see an end to this problem which dates back centuries and still pervades modern society.

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