Madness and murder – the aSTIGMAtism that blurs our vision of mental health issues

The latest debate to take over social media revolves around the new stigma surrounding mental health problems that is the child of the Airbus A320 crash. I tiptoe into a sensitive subject to work out if it is the murderer or the media who really suffered from impaired vision in this incident…

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‘MADMAN IN COCKPIT… Why on earth was he allowed to fly?’ read the Daily Mail headline that generated waves of repercussion through the sea of social media as the aircraft’s black box raised questions about its co-pilot’s sanity. Sufferers took to Twitter to condemn the implied discrimination against mental health patients in the professional sphere, and charities such as ‘Mind’ released statements against the mass media for insensitively adding to the pre-existing stigma around illnesses of this nature. Imbalanced by extreme opinions from both sides of the debate, we find ourselves flying in vicious circles between themes of depressive stereotypes and suffering in silence. Our predicament: The more the media adds to the stigma around depression, the less patients will admit to having their illness and be able to get help, thus the more they will be led to commit atrocities such as this one, kicking us back into a whole loop-the-loop of stigma, silence and suicide.

So what actually is stigma, and why are we making such a fuss about it? Surely the English language gives us a hint as to the nature of its implications by so closely linking it with the name of a visionary impairment: Astigmatisms and Stigma… let’s call them the physical and mental barriers preventing us from seeing clearly, producing distorted vision. Now whilst headlines emerge highlighting that Andreas Lubitz had received treatment for eyesight problems prior to the crash, it’s questionable whether it is in fact our broadsheet newspapers who are having trouble seeing the bigger picture. It all comes down to oversimplifying a tentative link between murder and depression.

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Of course, it’s easy to jump to conclusions when evidence and explanations are rapidly sought, but the problem we have is that irrational crime and mental health issues and all too closely connected in the eye of the public. It’s likely that we’re all being a little short-sighted here and we need to don a pair of varifocals to see that whilst there may be a small overlap between murders and sufferers of mental health issues, in the grand scheme of things there are a whole load of murderers with no medical history of mental health problems, and a whole load of sufferers of mental health issues who have absolutely no intention of ever murdering anyone. So why has the media magnified this rare connection, generating a repercussion of both generalisations and stereotypes and corrupting the understanding of mental health issues in the public eye?

It’s easy to blame this on human nature to focus on the negative, rather than the positive. Unfortunately, we don’t watch the news for an insight into all the upbeat goings-on in our country – rather to catch up on the unusual occurrences and extreme cases. It’s like seeing a black mark on a white wall; of course we focus on the mark, since it is out of place. This is metaphorically like our attitude to world news; we focus on the bad, because it’s rare and unexpected. However, when we apply this metaphor to our view of mental health issues, it gives us a little insight as to why we’ve built up such a stigma around them. Simply because we do not talk about them, the notion of mental illness is ALWAYS rare and unexpected. As we lack any pre-existing positive understanding of mental illnesses, the negative media coverage is the main influence on our views of said problems.

Again we find ourselves loop-the-looping and diving back down to a vicious reality here. You could almost compare it to a chicken-or-egg scenario; what came first, the stigma, or our reservations towards talking about mental illness? It’s easy to see that a general attitude towards mental health problems denoting them as ‘not real illnesses’ and problems solved by just ‘getting up and getting over it,’ precipitated a kind of barrier between sufferers and non-sufferers, preventing people from talking about their symptoms and driving them to feel even more alone. Of course, as severity of illness increases, so may the likelihood of suicide or other irrational action, which become the extreme events that gain media coverage and add to the stigma. Now, think about the rest of the children from the school of those pupils involved in the crash. Since the tragedy is likely to be their first experience of mental illness, surely they will grow up with an inert phobia of depression sufferers?

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It’s comparable to religious extremism at this point; a very small minority of mental health sufferers cause harm to others, yet these are the ones who take the limelight. Nonetheless, with such extremism we are also aware of the majority of innocent believers who are tarnished by the reputation of small terrorist groups. Yet with mental health sufferers, the majority of patients may suffer in silence, causing the public to be blissfully unaware of the symptoms and difficulties faced by victims and adding to their lack of understanding. Consequently, we find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle; the less sufferers talk, the more the general public speculate, and the more the public speculate the less willing sufferers become to talk, preventing them from getting adequate help to recover from their illness.

However, we come back down to earth with a crash when statistics propose that one in four of us will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in our lives. That’s a quarter of us. So, why is mental health treated as such an inapproachable subject? Interestingly, the majority of people who took to social media for backlash the media’s simplistic condemning of mental illness with regard to the Germanwings crash were depression sufferers themselves, whilst it was mental health charities who stood up to voice their fears about headlines adding to the stigma. It’s as if one has to have suffered from an illness of this type to be able to offer understanding. Interestingly, the media states that ‘torn up sick notes’ were found in Andreas Lubitz’ house, symbolising his reluctance to admit his suffering. Thus, if we take anything away from this tragedy, we should not focus on the extreme negative actions of the co-pilot, but rather the fact that a forced silence about his illness prevented him from getting necessary help, and led him to hide medical evidence stating he was not fit to fly.

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So, whilst many depression sufferers protest about the implied crackdown on mental health checks in the employment process for positions of responsibility, could they have been too quick to negate something that may indeed be a positive move, rather than a kind of discrimination? In fact, mental illness history should be checked as thoroughly, if not more, as any physical illness, since they actually ought to be treated the same. Instead of protesting against media discrimination, we should in fact be encouraging all talk about mental health, and normalising it both as a condition and a conversation topic.

Let’s go back to the white wall/ black mark metaphor, to try and make a positive circle among the mass of negative ones. In order to draw attention away from the black mark, we must focus on the rest of the wall. This is why in the light of the crash, the most effective preventative action we can take to ensure events like this do not reoccur is in fact to normalise mental illness, encourage sufferers to talk, and break down this barrier of communication. I’d actually go as far as to say it was a case of ‘all publicity is good publicity’ since it’s so important that we raise awareness of the severity of mental issues when they go unnoticed. We’ve all heard of the ‘talking cure’, well, this no longer applies just to sufferers. The more all of us openly talk about mental illness, as we would about physical illness, we can make sure that people with such conditions do not suffer in silence for fear of being judged, and prevent negative media extremities from being all the public knows about mental health.

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