Germanwings Tragedy & Employees Mental Health Responsiblity

Andreas Lubitz, the Germanwings co-pilot who is believed to have intentionally crashed Flight 9525 killing 150 people, was diagnosed with depression and was characterized by a physician as having suicidal tendencies.  As is known right now, Germanwings was unaware of Mr. Lubitz’s illness for which he was receiving treatment.  The tragedy of Germanwings Flight 9525 raises a serious issue that has hindered progress in accepting and treating mental illness.  Can employees disclose chronic mental illness to employers without fear of repercussions and persecution? Employees who are suffering from other illnesses or conditions usually do not hesitate to disclose their illness, especially if accommodations need to be made.  These accommodations, whether they are flexibility of work hours or a more comprehensive need for medical leave, often facilitate a more healthy working relationship between employer and employee.  It is also beneficial for employers to know their employees’ capabilities as well as what tasks they can accomplish safely and effectively.  An open dialogue between employers and employees suffering from mental illness can allow similar accommodations to be put in place long before there are performance issues or avoidable incidents. Nearly 30% of America’s citizens suffer from some diagnosable mental illness.  Therefore, it is not unusual to find someone with a mental illness in any work environment. In fact, it is quite likely there can be multiple employees with this type of illness.  When employees hide their illness in the dark their ability to get treatment is limited affecting the working community’s ability to maximize safety and comfort for everyone.  I personally encourage the education of employers regarding mental illnesses so that with acceptance and understanding there can be a shift in employee’s willingness and ability to disclose their mental health illness.  Even though under the American’s with Disabilities Act, employees are protected from discrimination based upon their illness, there is still the stigma associated with mental illness that interferes with the possible benefits employees could receive by  disclosing their illness. So if it is beneficial for employees to be open with their employer about their illnesses, why does it not occur more often? The stigma of mental illness seems to shift what is a chronic medical condition to the realm of fear.  Ignorance of the realities of mental illness can cause prejudicial attitudes and stigma.  At present, it is up to the employee to disclose any mental health conditions to their employer. Pilots, as with many other professions, may not freely disclose their mental illness for fear of losing respect, responsibilities, or ultimately their job. The FAA did loosen longtime bans on flying by anyone taking psychiatric medications, allowing exceptions for some antidepressants, but if this changes, due to recent events, those who are struggling could be even less likely be open and seek help for fear of losing their job.  I often see that families who have lost loved ones to suicide knew their loved one was struggling, but they did not seek help because of the stigma, lack of understanding mental illnesses, or the denial that this could exist in their family. Comprehensive education concerning the realities of mental illness can help to break the stigma employers and coworkers have regarding mental illnesses.  Working with survivors of suicide and suicide loss for over 20 years, I know that those who are suffering or are suicidal due to depression are not largely capable of mass murder such as Mr. Lubitz.  In fact, the common trait of all those who die of suicide is that they feel those around them would be better off without them, showing that many who are suicidal experience a need to save others from themselves. I have worked over those 20 years with families, organizations ,  professionals and lay people and have found  that those who have knowledge of the reality of mental illnesses are more accepting.  They are educated and realize that mental illnesses are due to three causes, biological, psychological and environmental like all other illnesses.  All of us have some experience with mental illness whether it be friends, family or even our own. Communication and knowledge is what can change the stigma of mental illness and hopefully allow safe and happy work environments for those who are suffering.

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