The Germanwings copilot who prosecutors say slammed an airliner into the French Alps reportedly had been treated for depression, a revelation sparking concern among researchers and advocates that the unfathomable act of one person may stigmatize mental health treatment for so many others.
Investigators who searched Andreas Lubitz’s home said they found evidence that “he hid his illness from his employer and colleagues,” though they did not say whether the illness was physical or mental.
German news media reported that Lubitz was diagnosed with a serious depressive episode in 2009, and went on to receive treatment.
“Just having the idea floated that he may have been treated, whether or not it is true, it sticks in people’s mind,” said Vic DiGravio, president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare, a Massachusetts trade group for community-based mental health centers.
“People are left with the image that someone with a mental illness created a horrific act, where the great majority of people with mental illness are living productive lives in our neighborhoods, and most people don’t even know that,” DiGravio said.
Studies indicate that most people with mental illness are unlikely to commit violent acts, said Jeffrey Swanson, a Duke University School of Medicine professor who researches mental illness and violence. “Even if we cured mental illness,” Swanson said, “96 percent of violence would still be with us.”
Yet surveys often reveal a public perception that mental illness walks hand-in-hand with violence and crime, a view that is particularly prominent after events, such as the Germanwings crash or mass shootings, that capture wide attention, Swanson said.
The real problem with mental health in the United States, he said, is the untreated illness and lack of access to care.
“The system we have is fragmented and overburdened and underresourced,” he said. “This is a teachable moment. There is a potential to message this, to make the issue worse or to get people to really talk about it.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Massachusetts has found that people can be reluctant to talk about the issue, particularly when it involves their employment.
The nonprofit organization commissioned a survey last year of 800 Massachusetts residents, and found 92 percent would advise someone with mental illness to confide in a relative, and 76 percent would suggest talking to a friend.
However, the survey also found only 27 percent would advise talking to a co-worker, and even fewer believed they had any co-workers with mental health problems.
“There is a disconnect in terms of people being aware of mental illness in their workplace,” said Stephen Rosenfeld, the alliance’s board president. “There is this thought out there that if you tell your co-worker, you will suffer consequences.”
The alliance aims to change that equation with a new campaign, called CEOs Against Stigma, launching this week. It will have company chief executives talk about the importance of mental health treatment and benefits for their workers.
“People who don’t reach out in their workplace for help will not get treatment, and ultimately their job performance will suffer,” Rosenfeld said.
According to data amassed by the alliance, for every employee experiencing depression who seeks treatment, two will not. Additionally, employees who experience depression report an average of six hours of lost productivity per week, the alliance research found.
“This is one area where conversation about it can only be a good thing,” Rosenfeld said. “Silence undermines treatment and more or less guarantees bad results.”