On Tuesday the Germanwings flight 4U 9525 tragically crashed into the French Alps, killing everyone on board. Naturally, there has been a lot of speculation as to why the plane went down – terrorism? Engine failure? Or the current theory – suicide?
Whatever the reason, the media have a responsibility to report appropriately. This morning, they made a fool of themselves. The majority of headlines linked the pilot’s mental health to his deliberate crashing of the plane, implying that he was a murderer and this was directly because of his depression. Making such sweeping statements is damaging – for both people who struggle with their mental health and for those who may not know a lot about mental health. It perpetuates the existing stigma that surrounds mental health, silencing those who need help. But imagine you didn’t know a lot about mental health problems, and the only things you were being told were things like this morning’s headlines, that people with depression were basically murderers. That’s not helpful for anyone! Of course, if that is the only information you are fed about mental health problems, you’ll adopt a stigmatized view. Newspapers are full of news (supposedly). They are trusted sources, and that’s why it’s so important that they take responsibility for appropriate reporting when stories come up that include a discussion about mental health.
The headlines this morning were pretty dire: The Daily Mail, charming as always, asked “Why on Earth was he allowed to fly?” claiming that the pilot had a long history of depression. Well, maybe because people who suffer with depression generally don’t fly their planes into the side of a mountain. The Daily Mirror announced “Killer pilot suffered from depression” in nice, bold letters, offering it as an explanation. At first glance this presumes that his depression was the cause of the tragedy. Thanks for that. The Daily Express offered up “Why jet crash pilot turned into killer” underneath writing “He was jilted and depressed”, again as a half-hearted excuse of an explanation. Personally, I think that the Sun trumped the headlines I have seen this morning, simply writing “Madman in cockpit”. Nice to see them flying the flag for reducing stigma. It seems that the UK press missed the memo this morning that says that tackling stigma is everyone’s business. It would also appear that they momentarily forgot the fact that they can have such a massive impact on people’s perceptions of different issues, mental health included.
I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that not once have I hurt anyone deliberately. (Oh and I have those dangerous mental health problems too, the ones that turn people into murders apparently) Nor has anyone else who I know. People with mental health problems are much more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators, not that the media would let you believe it. Globally, 350 million people suffer from depression (WHO). Take a minute to think about that figure… It’s a lot right? Are all of those 350 million people going to take their lives along with 150 others? Probably not.
We’ll probably never know what the pilot’s state of mind was during that flight. His depression may not have played a part. Jumping on the bandwagon and sensationalism just seem to be the media’s favorite things to take part in. A quick, catchy headline is short-sighted, it doesn’t look at the potential damage that could be caused by publishing it. If we’re going to tackle the issue of stigma, we all need to play a part, including (and especially) the media.