Should a mental illness decide how successful you are?


The tragic events of last week’s Germanwings incident struck a chord with people all over the world. Just over a week ago, co-pilot Andreas Lubitz locked himself and his captain in the cockpit during a flight to Barcelona from Dusseldorf, and deliberately ploughed into the French Alps, taking the lives of all 150 passengers with him. Our hearts go out to all those effected.

This week it has emerged that Lubitz had previously been treated for depression and suicidal tendencies in 2008, and his problems may have continued behind closed doors. This has understandably raised questions into the policies regarding pilots with a history of mental illness flying airplanes.

Indeed this is a common theme throughout the professional world – your chances of success can be hindered by a history of mental illness. But should this be the case?

Granted, tragic stories regarding actions of the mentally ill are manifold throughout history, including those with personality disorders.

We all remember the Sandy Hook School massacre in 2012, where twenty-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot his mother at home, proceeded to kill 20 children , six staff members and eventfully himself. Said to have suffered from aspergers and OCD, he had no friends at school and was described as ‘intelligent, but nervous and fidgety.’

The tragedy was heart-wrenching in two ways – both because of the violent loss of innocent lives and because a young intelligent boy was so isolated, misunderstood and angry that he felt forced into annihilation.

But in the same vein, so much greatness has emerged from what we perceive as illness. Beethoven was said to have suffered from Bipolar disorder. Jim Carrey has been open about his history of depression. It was well known that Kurt Cobain suffered with attention deficit disorder and depression. There are countless other examples. So what is the difference between these people and Adam Lanza, or Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz?

Albert Einstein, himself said to have had aspergers syndrome, once said “The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.” But it seems like a step in the wrong direction is irreversible in today’s world – it is hard to turn insanity into success given our attitude towards it.

Perhaps the source of insanity is the same source that creativity, intuition and compassion come from; the ability to feel on a deeper level – whether that is sadness, anger, love or inspiration. The outcome is dictated by external circumstances.

It would most likely be accurate to suggest that addictions work in tandem with this idea. A recent study performed on rats looked to challenge the idea that heroin is addictive no matter what by challenging the original conditions of the study. Traditionally, rats are put in a cage alone with two water bottles; one with heroin, one without. The rat will invariably become addicted to the heroin-laced water and abuse it until death. But what if you change the cage?

Professor Alexander, professor of Psychology in Vancouver did just that. He built Rat Park – an exciting cage with multi-coloured balls, good food, lots of friends and tunnels to run around in. It conspired that these happy rats didn’t like the drugged water so much and shunned it, compared to the lonely isolated rats who became addicted and perished.

So maybe it is, metaphorically speaking, the “cage” that dictates the difference between someone like Jim Carrey and Adam Lanza. Maybe instead of challenging the policies that allow pilots with a history of depression to fly, we should challenge the treatments available for them in the first place. The tendency to brush deep-rooted issues under the carpet with ‘happy pills’ instead of helping the sufferer improve their cage in the long-term needs to be addressed.

Andreas Lubitz was ‘treated’ for depression in the past and it was said he possessed anti-depressants. Common side effects of this medication include suicidal tendencies, anxiety, insomnia, reduced libido and depersonalisation. They work to block out your problems rather than address them. Your body becomes reliant on them and you suffer withdrawal symptoms if you decide to stop abruptly. Does this sound like a healthy treatment?

With this in mind, shouldn’t we change our attitude to depression itself rather than to the victims of depression in light of the Germanwings tragedy? Should someone’s mental disposition play a part in how far they are allowed to progress in life? Or should we take more than the medical definition of depression into account?

Antidepressants are the equivalent of painting over a mouldy ceiling. The mould will always grow back through. You cannot mask a problem forever, you must address it directly and resolve it. So to suggest that pilot suffering from depression shouldn’t be allowed to fly is the wrong stance to take. Instead we should be looking at the societal factors that cause a mentally ill person to snap in the first place.

If someone suffering from depression wants to kill dozens of people, they will find a way, regardless of if a policy stopping them from flying an airplane exists or not. We need to concentrate on the root of the problem, even if it is difficult to undertake. It’s our attitude towards mental illness that needs to change.

Perhaps it isn’t even an ‘illness’ at all, rather just different hardwiring, – these people are forced to fit into a society they don’t belong to. To use an Einstein quote again “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

In shamanic tradition, mental illness is viewed in a totally different light. They see it as ‘the birth of a healer.’ A spiritual emergency in which they must come to the immediate attention of in order to aid their birth as a healer – in other words, the birth of someone with the intuitive ability to help heal others of mental suffering. When a shaman visits a mental hospital, they see us treating it like something that needs to be stopped – a huge waste of this person’s potential.

So how do we begin to address depression in a way that works long-term and doesn’t involve any pills? Meditation is already becoming a popular alternative – a simple act that involves nothing more than you and a cushion. It gives you the opportunity to step back and observe your thought processes, the causes of negative ones and how to let go of them without getting caught up. There is even science to back it up for the rational-minded.

The Dalai Lama was famously quoted saying “If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.” Perhaps this would been the case for Andreas Lubitz, Adam Lanza and all the other cases of misunderstood mental illness ending in violent tragedy.

In Fairfield, Iowa in the USA, 2,000 people come together every morning and evening to practice meditation. There have been inexplicable drops in crime linked to this practice – can you imagine this on a bigger scale?

As is the case with everything else, we need to proceed with compassion if we really want to progress as a species. It might be difficult to sympathise with someone who deliberately killed 150 people due to his personal problems – but we have to understand the source of his actions, as it is the same source that could have lead to great success had it been treated differently.

Of course I am in no way suggesting that his actions were justified or the lives lost were anything short of a tragedy – but to prevent cases like this in the future we need to change our attitude towards mental illness. We need to recognise sufferers as human beings just like the rest of us, and grant them the same opportunities.


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