It was a news story that shocked and devastated people from all over the world. Last month, a pilot suffering from mental illness crashed a Germanwings plane into a mountainside in the south of France killing every person on board. I, along with so many others, desperately searched for a reason — a scapegoat to blame for such a horrific tragedy. As the media continued to dig deeper, one answer seemed to become clear: the man was depressed.
Just hours after the event, it was revealed that the crash was purposeful. A recording from the cockpit indicated that the pilot, Andreas Lubitz, was intentionally unresponsive to his co-pilot, ultimately redirecting the plane straight for disaster. Not only has the crash raised questions about Lufthansa’s ability to vet their employees, but it has also raised questions about the ability of people struggling with depression to operate in the workplace.
While it is important to consider monitoring Lufthansa more closely, I take issue with the way depression has been addressed throughout various media following the incident. As noted in an online article by National Public Radio this April, a violent event such as the Germanwings crash, “increases the stigma for everyone with mental illness. It also becomes more difficult for people with depression to be open about it.”
Depression is far more common than people may realize. It was found by the National Institute of Mental Health that 16 million Americans experienced at least one depressive episode in 2014. That is roughly one in 20 Americans — and while some may believe that number seems relatively low, that hardly scratches the surface of all people who are dealing with upsetting and self-deprecating thoughts on a regular basis.
On a micro level, colleges and universities have become a hotbed for depression in varying forms. In 2011, the American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment found that about 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at some time in the past year. Depression is all around us, and unless we rethink the dialogue that our society is having about it, people will continue to suffer alone, fearing the repercussions of speaking openly about their internal struggles.
Each day, chances are high that you’ve worked with a person dealing with depression without even realizing it. They maintain jobs, receive good grades and contribute to their campus communities. As Susan Goldberg, an assistant professor at Duquesne University, puts it, “I assure you, […] you have worked with someone with a mental health condition who has simply chosen not to disclose.” For that reason, it is dangerous to start blaming the Germanwings crash on depression alone because mental illness is more complicated than that. Depression alone did not lead to the Germanwings disaster; it was orchestrated by a distressed man who lived a difficult life.
By assuming that depression was the sole reason behind Lubitz’s actions, our society is marginalizing people who may be hurting by telling them that they are incapable of working or functioning in our community. These dangerous assumptions lead depressed individuals to suppress any feelings they may be having due to a concern that they will not be trusted to maintain normal jobs and lifestyles.
Depression is complicated and may deal with a combination of internal and external factors. Consequently, depression should be treated in a way that recognizes its profound complexity. If a friend opens up to you about their struggles, it is not beneficial to simply tell them, “it’s all about a positive attitude,” or “your life is fine, so don’t be sad.” Ultimately, you can serve as an outlet for the person to express their thoughts, but chances are, you will not be trained to walk them through the right conversations.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes a person just needs a friend to listen, and that’s great if you can serve in that role. You can be a valuable resource in being a nonjudgmental shoulder to cry on. However, when a person is showing signs of deep-rooted depression, you need to understand how delicate the situation may be. Guiding them to the right outlets for help is usually the best option. On our campus, we offer Counseling Services located in the Thompson Building for those who need help. Furthermore, our university offers a program called the Student Support Network that trains students to deal with peers who may be hurting.
If you truly want to help a depressed friend, sometimes the best thing you can do is lead them toward a trained helping hand. You cannot boil depression down to one reason or factor because it is a combination of many things. Moreover, you need to realize that depression is all around us, and the words you use matter. Do not point to depression as a singular motive behind given actions as the media has done in the case of the Germanwings crash. People with depression live normal lives, and by blaming their mental struggles as the root of horrible actions, you are only pushing them further into secrecy.
Think about what you say when discussing depression because it has a larger impact than you know. It may be difficult to spot, but depression impacts people from all walks of life. You can never be too careful when addressing mental illness. Finally, if you are struggling, get the help you need, remember that college is difficult, and you are not alone. There are people waiting to talk to you, it’s just about taking the first step.
Daniel Coffey studies journalism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.