Image: Germanwings Airbus A320-211 from Aero Icarus's Flickr Photostream

On the 24th March 2015 Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps killing all 150 passengers and flight staff. Amidst the shock of this tragedy French Police and Air Crash Investigators began to piece together the details of the flight’s last moments in order to determine the cause of the crash. What began to emerge was the disturbing possibility that the co-pilot on the flight, Andreas Lubitz, had locked the pilot  in command out of the cockpit and then intentionally flown the plane into the mountain. As this early speculation began to coalesce into a convincing narrative about Lubitz’s actions, information was released that suggested the 27 year olds behaviour might have been related to a history of mental illness that had been, in part, hidden from his employers. What had begun as a tragic loss of human life started to be presented more like a murder/suicide instigated by a deeply disturbed young man with a diagnosis of depression.

As a psychologist I find the idea of speculating about Lubitz’s frame of mind as he flew the plane and it’s passengers towards their deaths to be at best futile and at worst disrespectful. What seems clear given the available evidence is that Lubitz could not have been in his right mind to take such action. The novelist Ian McEwan writing in the wake of 9-11 terror attacks suggested that what had failed the terrorist hijackers more than even an ideological hatred was a profound lack of imagination. If they could have imagined themselves into the minds of their victims McEwan argued, they could never have acted with such callous cruelty. The same may be the case here but psychology at such a distance from the subjective experience of the protagonist does not provide us with the necessary tools for such insights, in spite of how much we would like it to.

A more productive train of thought to follow is the reaction of the media, mental health campaigners and the wider public to the role of Lubitz’s mental health history in the catastrophe.  In tracking the competing narratives it is possible to glean some insight into how we continue to struggle to talk coherently about mental illness in the UK.

Almost as soon as information began to emerge about Lubitz’s psychiatric history a range of views were played out across the media with some UK newspapers (traditionally on the right) suggesting that the pilot’s illness was the cause of his actions, while those on the liberal left reacted angrily to the suggestion (real or implied) that depression was associated with increased danger to others. Mental Health charities and campaigners such as the UK’s Time to Change campaign weighed in quickly to criticize causal links being drawn between mental illness and violence. They warned that such an analysis was likely to lead to an increase in the stigma surrounding mental health, paradoxically making people less likely to seek help, and to place people with these diagnoses at greater risk of discrimination in daily life.

So far so predictable. Tensions and conflicts surrounding the issue of mental health have long played out in similar ways across many areas of daily life. The conservative end of the press suggest there is much to fear from people with a history of psychiatric problems while insiders, both professionals and increasingly experts by experience, come to the rescue presenting strong arguments against such stereotyping. However what if in attempting to combat stigma and discrimination Mental Health campaigners inadvertently contribute to it?

Paradoxically, in making pronouncements about the relative commonality of mental health problems such as depression there is a risk that anti-stigma campaigns reinforce the difference between those of us who are seen to have a mental disorder and those of us who do not. For if 1 in 4 of us ‘suffers’ from a mental health problem at any one time that means that 3 out of 4 of us do not. This categorical distinction serves both to alienate and separate us according to our mental state and to transform the process of extreme forms of human suffering into a concrete entity that some possess and others do not.

This problem of ‘reification’ is a common one in psychology, and can be considered to be a category error. Reification, evidenced in the dominant positivistic methodology of mainstream psychology is the tendency to turn processes into objects, or put simply to turn verbs into nouns. For example we will often refer to ‘thoughts’ rather than ‘thought processes’, ‘memory’ rather than ‘remembering’ and ‘emotions’ rather than ‘feeling states’. By reifying depression and other mood states we heighten the stigma surrounding it, rather than reducing it. Psychiatric disorders of depression or anxiety become concrete entities, categorically separate from more social forms of distress such as grief, sadness, anger, fear and alienation. In the context of Lubitz, this reification means that his behaviour can be causally attributed to a discreet individual mental disorder, rather than any consideration given to the wider context of his life. It also allows Lubitz to be labeled in a way that identifies him with many people who suffer from extreme mood states but will never be of any danger to other people. Herein lies the problem for those of us who wish to destigmatise the language of psychiatric disorder; what do we do when someone with a label we profess should not concern us does something truly awful?

It is interesting that mental heath campaigners insistence that psychiatric disorders are categorically separate from less ‘extreme’ mood states is used to justify the argument that these ‘disorders’ are an ‘illness like any other’ and therefore distinctive from normal experience while at the same time asking for the wider public’s empathy for people ‘suffering’. While this sort of logical gymnastics is understandable given the range of political goals these campaigns have to address, they do little to enhance our understanding of the issues because they create an object where instead there is a process. The challenge is for us to find a way of talking about different forms of suffering that both legitimizes the very real pain and disability they can cause many of us without also erecting an edifice that leads to further stigma and discrimination.

About the Author: Danny Taggart is a Clinical Psychologist based jointly at the Priory Children’s Centre in Great Yarmouth and as a Lecturer in the School of Health and Human Sciences, University of Essex. At the Priory Children’s Centre he works alongside local fathers in the Great Yarmouth Father’s Project, a Community Psychology informed intervention to improve social, emotional and material conditions for families in the local area.