Media Perception of Mental Illness: Lessons Not Learned?

The unfolding horror and uncovering of the facts relating to the Germanwings flight that crashed in the French Alps yesterday is deeply disturbing.  The first officer of that flight, named today as Andreas Lubitz, has been under intense scrutiny following analysis of the cockpit voice recorder; the stark reality is that Lubitz appears to have deliberately flown the plane into terrain, killing everyone on board.

It is certainly legitimate, and absolutely necessary for the media to ask hard questions in relation to Lubitz.  Unfortunately though, the tone of much of what I’ve read from respected UK news outlets have left me feeling uneasy.  The entire focus is on mental illness and ‘weeding out’ pilots who suffer from depression.  What the media forgets, either consciously or subconsciously, is that it homicidal acts are very rarely precipitated by mental illness.  It is entirely plausible that an individual who deliberately crashes an airliner into a mountainside does not have any mental illness whatsoever.  There are many other issues that may precipitate such an act.

It  troubles me greatly that the mainstream media has failed to learn the lessons in relation to mental illness that it should have.  It seems that stigma and misunderstanding lurks just beneath the surface. It makes it even more difficult for those of us who live with a condition to engage in sensible debate and to raise the profile of our illnesses.

As many of us know through experience, mental illness is complex and not amenable to soundbites and glib assumptions. Let us hope that the media exploration of this issue becomes more nuanced and informed in the days ahead.  Goodness knows it needs to be.

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