Mental Illness in the Workplace After the Germanwings Tragedy

By now, I’m sure you all have heard of Germanwings Flight 4U9525, which crashed into the French Alps on March 24th. Since that date, multiple news agencies have reported that regulations and laws regarding medical privacy are being called into question. “How could this have been prevented?” they ask. It’s my understanding that part of the reason pilot-in-command, Patrick Sondenheimer, couldn’t get back into the cockpit was because of safety measure put in place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  We can debate all day about how to keep good, mentally stable people in and bad or mentally unstable people out, but I honestly think there are no changes to be made to laws, regulations or medical privacy policies that would have prevented this tragedy.

Mental Illness in the Workplace After the Germanwings Tragedy - Chapter TK

My boyfriend came up with the best solution I have heard so far. He said the policies should state that two people be in the cockpit at all times. That, of course, doesn’t stop two people from conspiring together to do something terrible, but certainly it would reduce tragedies like this one. Any other change, especially in regards to medical privacy, I fear would make no difference. I could even see changes creating more tragedy.

As a whole, humankind has a very difficult time with afflictions of the mind. People fear being stigmatized, a fear which often prevents them from seeking help. When someone is brave enough to seek help, they are often still stigmatized. I know people who suffer or have suffered from mental illnesses. Many of them go to great lengths to make sure no one knows, especially their employer and coworkers. They don’t want to be treated differently and they don’t want their past to affect their current job.

Thank God for medical privacy laws. I know for a fact some of the people would have faced great hardship without them. Some may not have jobs, some may be homeless and some may have even been died. Why? Because, had 99.9% of these people (again, people who I know) known their medical history could be accessed by anyone outside of their doctors and therapists, they would have never sought treatment.

There are two general options I hear debated in regards to the tragic Germanwings plane crash. The first is that employers should have access to the mental health records on their employees. So long as a person is managing their condition and is considered a non-threat by a medically trained professional, I don’t believe an employer has any business knowing any medical history of an employee. To give them access to this information is to give them the ability to treat a person differently based on their condition. All that will do is increase the fears that already prevent people who need help from accessing those services.

The second option is even worse. The rules could be changed so that a person who has any medical record of depression and/or suicidal thoughts is not allowed to pilot an aircraft. How many other employers would love to keep out anyone who has that kind of record? You don’t have to be flying an airplane to cause damage. All you need to do is bring a weapon to work. Just like the other option, this would only prevent people who need help from access.

The crash of Germanwings Flight 4U9525 is an absolute tragedy, but we can’t protect ourselves against everything. There is no sure way to safety. Even if we built a completely autonomous airplane, with no human pilot required, the fact that it would be built by human hands would put it at risk for error.

Maybe this is a crazy idea, but I honestly think the only way to prevent tragedies like this is for society as a whole to become more comfortable with mental illness. We need to try to understand and avoid bias judgement. If people didn’t feel like seeking help would stigmatize them, making it hard for them to form relationships or get jobs, they would be more likely to seek that help. And if more of people in need of mental health services seek that help out, they will be less likely to cause these tragedies.

At this point, I have to address a protester’s sign I’ve seen around the internet. As I remember, the sign claims that tragedies caused by Black people is gang violence. When caused my Hispanic people, it’s illegal immigration. When caused by someone of Middle Eastern decent or by someone of Islāmic faith, it’s terrorism. When cause by White people, it’s a mental health tragedy. Looking at the news, I can see why some would notice this trend. I have thought of that as I formed my opinion on this issue. Here is my thought.

Are their solid studies out there of mental illness rates in those cultures and others? Perhaps people living in certain neighborhoods or countries have less access to mental health services than others. I can’t help but wonder, do we debate mental health issues when tragedies like this happen because society finds it difficult to damn a white person, or are white people more like to have mental illnesses on their health records because they have greater access to mental health services?

The truth is, I don’t know. All I know is that, when it comes to mental illness, I believe greater access to mental health services and the abandonment of mental health stigmas would go a long way in preventing similar tragedies.

Do you think there are any laws, regulations or policies that could have prevented the tragedy of Germanwings Flight 4U9525? What policies should be created because of this event? Is society ready to destigmatize mental illness?


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22 thoughts on “Mental Illness in the Workplace After the Germanwings Tragedy”

  1. While I believe that employers having access to medical records of their employees is good in theory, because of the very nature of the species called “human.” It can lead to a slippery slope.

    The theory being that employers can access the employee’s medical records and keep an eye out ONLY for the things which would affect their job in a direct way. This is flawed because you have a human looking at these records and they have biases and opinions and may find something out about an employee that the employee wants NO ONE to know. A terrible example would be if a pilot had a case of crabs as a teenager. While this may have been years ago, the “affliction” gone, it is none of anyone’s business. Would the employer have access to this? Further, what would be considered something “enough of a threat” were it up to the doctors to tell the employers only THAT affliction?

    There are so many “what ifs” and dangers here. That is why the laws are so strict in regards to medical information. Not sure this is the right way to go.

    What do YOU think?

    1. I’m not sure I’d change anything. Maybe I’d make it the doctor’s responsibility to notify employers and family members if a patient is dangerous, but then I worry that will also prevent people from getting the help they need. Really, the best way to prevent tragedy is for those in need to get the necessary help. Anything that hinders that makes me nervous.

  2. So a proposed solution to this black swan is to alienate people with mental health issues all the more? That sounds like it couldn’t possibly go wrong.
    The rights of employers seem to trump privacy in a way that some governments would envy. Compulsory drug testing, attendance/absence management rather than any actual addressing of the root causes of either. What happened on that flight was a tragedy, but to remove ourselves from compassion and understanding of what mental health illness actually is, and does, would just be putting another turd in the punchbowl and encouraging people to drink.
    Would anyone be ashamed of announcing they had cancer? Because it’s a progressive disease, that untreated, kills people.

    1. My thoughts exactly. Mental illness is serious, but we don’t need to protect ourselves from the mentally ill. We need to make sure they have access to the services they need.

      1. Some of the attitudes stem from ignorance, wilful or otherwise. Any of us, no matter our status or identity are prone to a misfiring hormone or a traumatic event that can bring us to our knees. In light of that, why not be kind?

  3. Almost all airlines have the rule that at least two pilots should be in the cockpit. Apart from this, the cockpit can be usually unlocked from outside. The Germanwings Flight didn’t have that facility.
    I feel that all the airlines should recheck their policies and strengthen it to avoid such small faults.
    Giving regular counselling to the staff would reduce the risk of falling into depression or making them less prone to mental illnesses. I don’t know how far will this work, but I believe that this can bring in a major change.

    1. I didn’t know the the policy for two people in the cockpit was already a thing. I heard on NPR that the mechanism that kept the cockpit locked to the main pilot when he stepped out was put in place after 9/11. I thought that was interesting. Maybe we have to choose whether we protect the pilots in the cockpit from the people outside, or the people outside from those in the cockpit. There’s no single way to keep it 100% safe.

      I think having anonymous, free and accessible counselling for all business would be beneficial. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to and sometimes you need serious help. We can’t even convince businesses to provide basic health insurance to all employees, though, let alone mental health services.

  4. I think the Germanwings event was a terrible tragedy that was able to happen because of a concatenation of events unlikely to be repeated. Blaming the pilot’s mental health is an easy option for the media. The truth of how this tragedy was able to unfold is no doubt far more complex.

    I think for me the debate that should be emerging from this scrutiny on mental health issues and policies ought to be about removing the stigma of mental ill health. If people felt they could open up about what they were experiencing without fear of judgement and reprisal then perhaps it would facilitate them seeking out appropriate support and treatment.

    I think here in America people are more open about being in therapy or counselling but I’m sure having certain mental health conditions is still a taboo conversation. Back home in Britain, mental health is not something people generally discuss. It’s for behind closed doors. That sense of isolation and shame surely compounds the problem and probably prevents access to help.

    As a teacher, my employer was entitled to view a medical report about me completed by a physician. Not access to my full confidential medical records but a tick sheet of the highlights and lowlights of my health history. I confess that knowing that – and knowing what a stigma was attached to mental health conditions – I did not seek help when I experienced a period of acute depression. I could not risk that impacting on my employability. And that’s just wrong.

    So I think it’s probably less about changing policies (though improved access to mental health treatments would be great) and more about changing the attitudes and culture surrounding mental health so that people in crisis or dealing with a chronic condition feel they can speak up, access appropriate help and not fear the consequences of doing so. It’s about time people realised that mental health conditions are no more shameful than asthma or diabetes.

    1. I wouldn’t say I talk about it a whole lot. Of the people I know, one is open about mental illness. The others want to ignore it. If I ever bring it up, I usually get a “we don’t need to talk about that.” I know people who flat out don’t believe in depression and think it’s stupid. My father once said about one of these people, “so they pop pills and never try to kill themselves again? That’s it?” People really just do not get it.

      The biggest hurdle is that a lot of mental illnesses make a person resistant to seeking help without societal pressure. Someone with sever paranoia is probably not likely to seek treatment on their own. The other issue is, too often people who need help have to actually hurt themselves or others to get it. I know a person with sever autism who will never function in society. The truth is, they are actually high functioning and may have been a successful member of society. But, their family is poor and unless it is proven this person is a danger to themselves or others – by actually making or acting upon some kind of threat – no one will step in. People shouldn’t have to try to kill themselves to get help.

      And even then, with all the acceptance and understanding in the world, we really can’t defend ourselves against someone who keeps their mental illness a secret until it’s too late.

      1. I’ve only been in America 18 months and already I am seeing and to an extent experiencing the dysfunction of the medical system here, the many barriers to accessing treatment and support. It’s no small wonder so many people fall through the cracks when there’s no safety net.

        1. I think the biggest issue is that we all have a different definition of “basic health care.” To some people, that means just enough care so that you don’t die today, and to others that means preventing problems that would cause one to die today – and everywhere in between.

          The funny thing is, we’d be better off if we provided more. Some people when mental problems could successfully contribute to society, given the right treatment, pay taxes and advance the economy. But, because they happen to lack the money for treatment, that never happens. We all suffer for it.

  5. I’ve been a community mental health clinician for almost 30 years. The community prejudice against people with mental illnesses is very real as is the discrimination. The stigma attached with carrying a lable of “Schizophrenia” or “Bi-Polar” does prevent many people from seeking and accessing help. Please, please, please remember that people who suffer with mental illnesses are much, much more likely to be the victims of violence and exploitation than the perpetrators of violence and exploitation. Until attitudes toward mental illness change, any move to allow greater access to confidential medical records is not only ill advised but is more likely to exacerbate incidents like the Gremanwings tragedy than to prevent them.

  6. “Maybe this is a crazy idea, but I honestly think the only way to prevent tragedies like this is for society as a whole to become more comfortable with mental illness. We need to try to understand and avoid bias judgement. If people didn’t feel like seeking help would stigmatize them, making it hard for them to form relationships or get jobs, they would be more likely to seek that help. And if more of people in need of mental health services seek that help out, they will be less likely to cause these tragedies.”

    Not crazy at all. Pretending that there is no such thing as mental illness only makes it worse. I understand that we need to be more understanding of people. Privacy laws may help, but they don’t fix the general problem that people are judgemental in the sense of: “It’s your fault you are (insert label here)!”. Your idea of destigmatizing things by teaching people to understand mental illness is of course an understanding of why people do things based on your experiences with people you know. It’s based on something real.

    1. I truly believe understanding is the way to peace. People need to be open to knowledge and to learn about the world, about people and about what effects everything around us. Without that openness, we stand no chance at peace.

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