If we are to learn anything from the devastating events of flight 4U9525 it is that depression is a secret – and we don’t share it enough.
Every fifth adult will experience depression at some point in their lives. The likelihood that you, a friend, relative, acquaintance, colleague or co-student of yours is suffering from it right now is extremely high. Depression is known as the ‘common cold’ amongst mental health diseases. Yet despite its commonness many people still find it incredibly hard to open up and talk about it – and apparently that was the case for co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, who on Tuesday plunged himself and 149 others along with him to death.
We have been reporting about this crash from around the world. I am writing this on Saturday morning, and by now we seem to know what happened. Case workers have stitched the story together through medical records, interviews, and from the plane’s voice recordings. Andreas had a history of depression; on the day of his homicide-suicide he had ignored a sick note given to him by his doctor and went to work. He was conscious right up until the moment 4U9525 crashed into a mountain in Southern France. And he seemed to be in full knowledge of what he was about to do.
But even though we now seem to be sure it was homicide-suicide, I feel that so far no one has been talking about the real issue at stake here. We’ve been focusing on blaming the individual, on implementing tighter air controls – but maybe that is not the full solution to a very difficult issue.
Rather than focus on the surface of the problem, we need to dig deeper. Why does someone suffering from depression feel the need to hide it from his employers? Why do they ignore their sick note?
A few years ago, I myself went through a particularly dark episode of depression. It was on one of those evenings when I was feeling absolutely helpless and distraught. It was late, and I had not left my room the entire day. I had not showered, I had not eaten. There seemed to be no point in anything if we were all going to die anyway and happiness was just an illusion.
Almost every depressive person I know has one thing they do that makes them feel less dead or torn inside when they are going through a depressive episode. For some it is alcohol or drugs, others go for long runs. I personally watch TED and YouTube videos online (one of the reasons I often say that the internet saved my life). These little fixes are different for everyone – just as everyone’s depression is different from the next person. Anyway – that evening I stumbled upon a talk that struck a very distinctive note and has stuck with me ever since. Andrew Solomon, a writer on politics, culture and psychology, gave a TED talk in late 2013 about depression. A few minutes in he said something so profoundly true – and something I feel needs to be reiterated at this particular moment in time:
“[Despite my treatment] I emerged and relapsed, emerged and relapsed … and emerged and relapsed. And I finally understood I would have to be on medication and on therapy forever. And I thought: But it is a chemical or psychological problem, and does it need a chemical cure or a psychological cure? And I couldn’t figure out what it was at all.
That actually we aren’t advanced enough in either area to explain it fully. The chemical cure and the psychological cure both have a role to play and I also figured out that depression was something that was braided so deep into us that there was no separating it from our character and personality.
I want to say that the treatments we have for depression are appalling. They’re not very effective, they’re extremely costly and they come with numerous side effects. They are a disaster. But I’m so grateful that I live now and not 50 years ago when there was almost nothing to be done. And I hope that 50 years hence people will hear about my treatments and be appalled that anyone would have to endure such primitive science.”
It is especially that last bit that rings so true. Despite the deeply entrenched common belief that depression only inflicts the privileged people of the West, it in fact affects people regardless of their background, nationality, gender and ethnicity. It just so happens that we hear more about those in more privileged positions because these are the people that can afford the required treatment. And it has always been the case that those with money tend to be those with the power to speak up and be heard.
Getting treatment for depression is hard. If you’re not wealthy enough to afford private therapy, both the UK and Germany make you wait months on waiting lists before you get treated through the NHS or your health insurance. At which point it is often too late. If you are severely depressed and suicidal, you cannot wait 6 months or more to be treated. When I was at my most depressed, I didn’t even feel like I could wait another day. I would wake up in the morning and be distraught that I hadn’t died in my sleep. Being told you have to wait several months for your therapy is similar to breaking your leg now and being told: Sorry, you have to wait 6 months before we can see to you and put a bandage around your leg.
Instead of waiting for the NHS to help me I ended up deciding to burn my entire life savings on my cure (and thus probably saving my life). I quit my university course, moved back to London and found a private psychologist who treated me for three months. But not everyone is lucky enough to be in the position to be able to afford quitting their job and paying for private treatment.
And when you do get the treatment, it is still so far from ‘good’. I feel that psychology and medicine has still barely scratched the surface of what depression is and how it needs to be treated. The fix for depression is not universal. What works for one person will not make a difference with the next. We still don’t really know how to treat it or what causes it, and I have found that especially Western medicine treats depression way too mechanically. Depression is not a broken leg. It is both a chemical, psychological and individual disease. For some people medication works – it does now for me. But it wouldn’t have helped me five years ago, when I had a lot of underlying issues that needed to be dealt with.
Through a lot of work on my own initiative, I have finally found a system to survive with my depression. In my case it helps to eat healthy, sleep enough, be surrounded by friends and family who accept, understand and love me and to constantly be intellectually challenged. To eliminate toxic people from my life, read the news and good novels, educate myself on a regular basis and doing what I love and not letting others decide who I am to be or what I am to do. Quitting the university course I was enrolled on, moving back to London and finding my true passion in Social Anthropology were the best things I could have done to battle my depression – to live a better life. Come to think of it, to live at all. I sometimes feel pretty certain that I might not have been alive today if I hadn’t made these very costly decisions.
But if anything, what makes depression worst is silence.
Feeling the need to hide your depression from those around you makes you feel like an invalid; like a broken, flawed, unworthy human being – and these are thoughts that are already infesting your brain when you’re depressed. You don’t need even more of that.
It took me a number of years to be so open about it. But now I no longer make a secret of my disease. And if anything, it has helped me battle it, to learn to love myself– and to survive.
In the UK we often complain how bad the stigma around mental illnesses is. But every time I return to my German homeland I realise how much easier it is for me in the UK. Whilst doing my internship in Munich last summer, I was struck several times by how stigmatised depression is. People would actively distance themselves from the illness. Nobody would talk openly about it. Universities, unlike in the UK, did not have heavily advertised mental health & wellbeing offices. Mental health is something you talk about with bated breath. You most certainly don’t want others to hear you talk about it in public, and in most cases you will avoid telling your friends, employers or teachers about it – out of fear of being stigmatised, losing friends or maybe even being fired. I have German friends who felt the need to be silent about it in job interviews – because they knew it would jeopardise their chances on job applications. On top of that, the German media mostly silences suicidal acts. A friend of mine is a successful German journalist who writes for big newspapers across the country, and across the board there is a rule not to write about suicide acts. It is believed it triggers ‘copycat suicides’. That talking about it makes the problem worse.
But if anything, it isolates those suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts.
As upsetting as it is, if we are to live in societies that practice ‘freedom of speech’ (a topic that has proven very popular in the past three months), then we should not be silencing mental illnesses and their severe effects.
Living in London, I am constantly confronted with acts of suicide on the tube and commuter trains. Not a single month goes by without someone jumping in front of a train. But if there is one good thing about it being reported is that in my darkest hours it has left me feeling less isolated. Knowing that others are suffering from the same disease as yourself can be comforting. You feel less ‘crazy’. You realise it’s not just you being a ‘negative person’ – that in fact it is an actual disease infesting your Self. I do not take comfort in hearing about suicidal acts. In fact, it probably upsets me more than a ‘healthy’ person. I have had suicidal thoughts on numerous occasions – but every time I have been so glad not to have followed through. To hear about someone committing suicide makes me sad because that person has been failed by the their health system – and their society.
I can only speculate. But if Andreas Lubitz had felt he could talk openly about his depression, maybe he would have not committed suicide. Maybe if he had felt he could talk to his employer without losing his (maybe dream?) job he would have been able to take time off work. Be treated thoroughly. Learn to find coping mechanisms.
I don’t know Andreas, and unfortunately I never will. I don’t want to justify his act of pulling 149 people along with him into his death.
But instead of focussing on his homicide-suicide, on tightening air controls – we need to look at ourselves. I know that is a very hard thing to do. Most of us don’t like criticising ourselves. But we need to look at our own society and ask ourselves: are we failing the people who need us the most? If someone suffering depression feels the urge to be secretive about it, to hide it from their employer – then isn’t there something fundamentally wrong with the way we talk about and portray depression? Isn’t there something very wrong with its treatment and the accessibility to it? The mental health charity Time To Change stated on their website that Andreas had passed all the necessary psychological tests. Then don’t we need to challenge the way that psychology treats and tests mental health?
Andrew Solomon was asked if being so open about his depression had changed the way people talked to him. His answer was, yes, it has: “ People approach me about their own depression, about their relatives or friends who were suffering from depression. People tell me what has worked for them.” They would provide support for one another and thank him for speaking up for them.
The more open I have been with my own depression, the more I have found this to be the case. Through talking about it I have found out that so many of my own friends and personal heroes have been through struggles similar to mine. We talk and support each other. We are each other’s first point of contact if we are experiencing depressive or suicidal thoughts. We help each other by pointing out negative thought patterns to one another. Reminding each other that it is the depression making us see everything in such a bad light.
Depression has a sneaky way of making you think you have finally seen the truth. In the midst of a depressive episode I do not feel like I am wearing a grey veil – no. I feel like I have finally seen the truth that no one else can see. I have understood how incredibly worthless and useless life is. What is the point in me having a shower or in eating my next meal? What is the point in me going to school, university, getting a job – when eventually we all die anyway – and if the world still ends up being a cruel place? – But it’s my support network that will show me: It is your depression talking. Depression lies. And it does it in such a sneaky and clever way that you start believing that it is the truth.
We need to encourage each other to be more open about or mental illnesses. Suffering from depression makes me, you and anyone else no less worthy a person than the next. Unlike what some very nasty person at the Daily Mail said, depressive people are not worthless employees. We are not dangerous to society. It is the system that is dangerous to us. A system that makes us feel we need to silence our illness. I’m not trying to defend Andreas’ actions. As a budding anthropologist, I am very wary of any form of judgment, be it positive or negative. I am devastated and I cannot even fathom the pain that the relatives and friends must be going through right now. But we cannot only blame the co-pilot or airline regulations. As painful and uncomfortable as it is, we need to look inward and question the society that makes an individual feel forced to hide his mental illness.
If you think you, a friend, relative, acquaintance, colleague or co-student of yours is suffering from depression right now, don’t silence it. Talk to someone. If you’ve never talked about it with anyone else before, then maybe approach someone you don’t know. There are abundant resources online. Several charities offer online chat support. UK universities run mental health and wellbeing offices. If a friend tells you to ‘get over yourself’ then it is not you who is in the wrong. It is that person who knows no better and, sorry, is being ignorant. Depression is real. It is devastating. And we need to talk about it.
I mourn the death of Andreas, and I mourn the death of every single one of the 149 passengers and staff. It is for that reason that I encourage you to be the beginning of change. We need to make treatment more accessible. We need to improve it. And above all, we need to talk about it. If we remain silent, depression will win.[fruitful_sep]
See below for international support if you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness. Please feel free to contact Katharina if you are struggling to find the right support online. Her twitter handle is @20sthredhead. If you’d prefer to message her privately, you can direct-message her by following her.
Also, check out Andrew Solomon’s talk here
A German-British hybrid, Katharina is studying Social Anthropology in London. In her free time she loves reading (anything from novels to newspapers), taking photos and exploring the fabulous city that is her home. Whilst harbouring a passion for BBC Radio 4, her top 3 pet peeves are labelling, othering and gender inequalities.