The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 last week has raised questions about who is mentally fit to fly a plane. Obviously, there needs to be some revisions to the present policies abroad in response to the tragedy of 150 lives. I mourn for all the families and send my prayers to them. However, in reading pieces about the new possible regulations to be put in place, I fear the industry will become like the legal sector, where strict procedures to maintain mental-health fitness has discouraged both law students and established attorneys from getting the help they need for a mood disorder.
“In some states, law students who report that they have a mental health condition as part of the character and fitness investigation may be precluded from passing the bar,” Timothy Clement, MPH, Scattergood Fellow on Stigma Reduction, told me today. “In many other states the student will have to furnish his or her treatment records in order to pass. This type of exclusion is based on inaccurate stereotypes and has a chilling effect on law students seeking diagnosis and treatment.”
Have the regulations empowered this group of professionals to seek help? Consider these statistics compiled by the Dave Nee Foundation:
- Entering law school, law students have a psychological profile similar to that of the general public. After law school, 20-40% have a psychological dysfunction.
- Lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers.
- Lawyers rank 5th in incidence of suicide by occupation.
- Lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the US.
“At the Dave Nee Foundation, as we travel across the country visiting law students, we have found a high percentage of the students will not seek help because they fear professional consequences,” says Executive Director Rachael Barrett. “While, character and fitness concerns are real, law school administrators are available to help students through the process and will encourage students to seek help.”
It’s not that I don’t understand the case for safety. I certainly do. John Grohol of Psych Central brings up a good question in his blog the other day, “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,” he writes.
Yes, there is safety.
And then there’s stigma, which unfortunately always seems to be attached to safety.
Part of me sighs … here we go again.
Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot that is believed to have intentionally crashed the plane, has become the new poster boy for depression, which means, Ladies and Gentlemen, it has just gotten harder to be a person with a mood disorder in any profession, whether you are busting your butt to get better or not. It doesn’t really matter how many kale smoothies you drink, how much fish oil you take, how often you do yoga, or whether or not you spend your entire paycheck on cognitive behavioral therapy, because I have found that there is no nuance when it comes to the topic of mental health. You are either are “cray-cray.” Or you’re not. And if you ARE (especially if you are one of the ten percent of Americans who take antidepressants), I sure would bury those bottles deep into your purse for the next, oh, six months, until this blows over because you don’t want anyone finding out.
I think this tragedy like so many others has people asking the wrong question. It’s not, “What regulations can we put in place to keep the public safe?” It should be, “How can we best encourage all kinds of professionals to get the help they need and to adhere to the treatment plans agreed upon with their doctor?”
Putting a few policies in place is an insignificant Band-Aid to cover up the real, monumental problem, which is a prevailing ignorance about mood disorders not only in this country, but around the globe. Think about it, if we lived in a culture where Lubitz’ mental problem was considered like, say, prostate cancer, do you think he would have thrown the notes from his doctor into the trashcan? There is no shame in handing your boss a note that says, “I can’t work today because my prostate cancer treatment has rendered me too weak.” But there is a tremendous amount of humiliation when a person has to submit some scribble from a psychiatrist that says he is not well in the head. I would be willing to bet that there are over a million letters from psychologists hidden in wastebaskets throughout the world, whereas most of the ones written for socially-acceptable conditions, like prostate cancer, would have been turned in.
I’d like to turn this public perception of mood disorders around in the next ten years because I don’t want my kids to have to pick their professions based on speculative mental-fitness questionnaires. I don’t want their career to be influenced by answering the questions: Does mental illness run in your family? And, Has your mother ever taken you to see a psychologist when you were young? At that rate, we will have become a society divided in three: cray-crays, non-cray-crays, and lots and lots of liars.
Continue the discussion on Project Beyond Blue, the new depression community.
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.