It was the timing and tone of yesterday’s newspaper headlines that crossed the line for me: not any of the discussion about mental health and airline safety. Of course, occupational health and fitness standards for pilots should be rigorous and we heard yesterday about annual testing, psychological testing, etc., etc.. By now, it may be easy to forget that when papers went to press on Thursday night, we still knew comparatively little about the pilot of the doomed flight. We certainly did not know that he appears to have ripped up sick notes that were relevant to the day of the crash or what kind of condition they related to – we still don’t, as the German police have not confirmed it. Whilst we did have suggestion that he had experience of depression and ‘burnout’ – whatever that means – we don’t know the nature or degree of this, do we?
There are other pilots, probably some of them flying as you read this, who have lived experience of depression. For that matter there are people doing all manner of professional and other private things who have too. I wonder how many moving cars you walked or drove past today and how many of their drivers have had or do have depression? And yes, some people do end their own lives in ways that involve the use of vehicles – but we’re not proposing that everyone with any degree of depression, no matter its nature, should be stripped of their driving licence. “How on EARTH was that man allowed to drive a car?!” In case anyone is already thinking that the pilots actions cost another 149 lives remember there are well over 3,000 deaths a year on UK roads and that some of those figures will involve lives lost after deliberate actions involving vehicles.
NATURE OR DEGREE
Mental health professionals and mental health law talks about the ‘nature or degree’ of mental disorders. (I still detest that terminology – it is legal language). The Masked AMHP has written about this from his perspective as someone who has to interpret those terms in professional practice, but it essentially boils down to how acutely unwell are you and what is the nature or impact of that condition upon you. To give an example, 1 in 100 people have schizophrenia which can be accompanied by auditory hallucinations of one kind or another. For some patients, this is just another voice to listen to amongst many and causes little particular difficulty against the backdrop of a condition that they can live with an operate a relatively normal life. For others, internal voices are so devastating that it can lead to incredibly self-destructive behaviours and / or substance misuse to ameliorate the impact of them. Two patients such as these would be assessed differently, in terms of the ‘nature or degree’ of their condition.
And my point on this issue is that we still don’t really know what’s going on factually and even if we did, we could not yet understand the ‘nature or degree’ of any depressive condition this pilot may have had. Certainly not within 72hrs of the crash happening. This is why the newspaper headlines were premature: maybe that pilot was diagnosed with a terminal condition a week before hand and took an impulsive decision as he struggled to come to terms; maybe he did have a serious depressive condition that he was hiding from his employer and was actively suicidal? If that latter were true, then of course no-one would question a decision to ensure he didn’t fly a plane into a mountain at 500mph. But let’s wait and see the full facts – even the German police added on Friday to what the prosecutor in Marseille has said about their working hypothesis and they kept that development vague, so who knows what it means?!
Nevertheless, whatever we end up learning here, we do know that ‘depression’ is not and will not be the sole explanation for the crash, even if it is the most convenient or intuitive one. Even if we do end up learning that this young co-pilot was acutely unwell and that he had concealed this well from his employer and his colleagues, I will still be more interested in learning that we have reflected on airline safety system for reasons that are far broader than concerns about a pilot’s mental health. You can only crash a plane deliberately into the French Alps if the broader systems within which pilots are making decisions allows for such a catastrophic choice to be made by one person. Nuclear missiles cannot be launched from submarines on one person’s say so – it is fairly obvious why things are set up this way.
JUST ONE RISK AMONGST MANY
So absolutely none of this means that we shouldn’t be having a debate about how to mitigate against this happening again – whether for reasons connected to potential mental illness or for any other reason. I admit to wondering initially whether the crash was caused by some other human factor: terrorism. If my instinct had been correct and we weren’t discussing mental illness, we would still be wanting to know why it were possible for one person on a flight deck to islote the other pilot and take the decision to kill 149 other human beings. You will have noticed that some airlines have already started putting a third qualified pilot onto their flights with a rule that two people must be present on the flight deck at all times. There are so many other reasons why this could also prove wholly insufficient to stop similar tragedies in the future!
My point here is: the newspaper headlines we saw on Friday morning shame us all and make it more likely that such events may occur. It is perfectly possible to write speculatory headlines as events unfold and as new information comes in without ensuring that other pilots with depression will feel they will be stigmatised for seeking help or support. And of course if we’re not going to let people with depression fly planes, we’d best have all the driving licences back and start thinking more carefully about our military commanders, amongst other things. The reality is we all rely upon people with a range of mental health problems to do a wide variety of things: you have police officers and paramedics out there who have mental health problems – some have even been ‘sectioned’ under the MHA whilst very unwell and are perfectly professional people who are helping keep you alive and well after recovering. There are other 999 emergency services personnel who have medically retired from service because the nature and degree of their condition meant it was appropriate for them to do so. All cases on their indiviudal merits.
This post, in the end, is merely a protest against premature generalisation – we should see individuals in their specific context and if it is the case that this event looks predictable in hindsight, then let’s talk about safety systems that aren’t just targetted at pilots’ mental health problems but also those other issues that have caused even more deaths over the years.