Thoughts on the German air tragedy, mental health and capability

I wasn’t going to write anything around the GermanWings tragedy, for a number of reasons, but I was encouraged to, so I have. If you haven’t yet read the statements from Time To Change and Mind about media coverage,  please do.

Against my better judgement, earlier today, I also read the comments below some pieces about it:

“People with histories of mental problems shouldn’t be allowed to be responsible for hundreds of lives!”

“You wouldn’t let a blind man drive a bus….”

Let’s deal with the “hundreds of lives” first. If you’re an imminent danger to anyone you shouldn’t be responsible for any lives, whether it’s five people’s or a hundred. No-one whose loved one has just been murdered says: “Ah well, at least he only killed the one and not a plane full of passengers, that’s something eh….!” In the statistically rare situation that someone with a mental health problem poses a danger to the public (as opposed to themselves) they shouldn’t be working, and they should be receiving support and treatment (Sidenote: Not cutting mental health and welfare services to the bone would really help here). 

Now, how do you define “mental problems?” “Seeing a therapist” covers anything from a psychotic breakdown to a few sessions of marriage guidance. (Sidenote: “Psychotic” doesn’t necessarily mean “violent,” either. It just means believing things that aren’t true or real). Taking medication is a similarly wide umbrella: Anti-depressants are prescribed at different rates for different reasons; a prescription on its own doesn’t say very much, and some people who’d probably benefit from them aren’t taking them. Or indeed, “a history”? Meaning what? Three months ago? Five years ago? Ten years ago? Twenty? And do you think everyone you ask about their history is going to disclose it to an employer, given the possible consequences? (Hint: No, they’re not. See also: weapons owners. You’re supposed to mention health problems, physical or mental, to the police when applying for a shotgun licence, who then inform your GP. People who save lives for a living can be a bit iffy towards people who kill things for a hobby, especially those with an iffy mental health history. Gasp, applicants might not always be entirely honest…)

And no, employing someone with depression in a public-facing job is not the same thing as employing a visually-impaired bus driver, for important reasons. A visual impairment is a fixed thing affecting one function of your body. Depression and anxiety are fluid and affect people in different ways, to different degrees and in different situations. Someone who is brilliant and capable in a job when they are well shouldn’t be categorically barred from it because they’re sometimes unwell. And although capacity can be controversial (I know this because I talk to companies about it in relation to dyspraxia and dyslexia, which includes discussions around dyslexic medical staff and fitness to practice) most fitness-to-practice situations take care of themselves perfectly nicely because most people, including those with disabilities, are perfectly good at assessing their own abilities, especially around life or death situations. We’re not being made to employ armies of dyspraxic plumbers, dyslexic proofreaders or autistic party planners by political correctness. Similarly, there’s no reason to think there are any more depressed people in aviation than any other industry. If anything, there are probably fewer. Episodes of debilitating self-doubt don’t exactly lend themselves to a career defying gravity.  In any event, broad, rigid rules don’t work well for complex conditions.

Pilots are already regularly, rigorously assessed for their mental and physical health, but no screening process can ever be infallible. This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. The kind that sticks even in the minds of those who consume a huge amount of terribly tragic news every day. It sticks in my mind because I have family in a small German town not dissimilar to the one where sixteen schoolchildren on the flight came from, and in 1999, age 15, I sat in the departure lounge at JFK surrounded by passengers from EgyptAir flight 990 which crashed into the ocean within an hour later killing everyone on board. My mum was holding onto me in tears the night the story broke earlier this week. Unfortunately, sometimes, rare, awful, heartbreakingly tragic things happen. They are awful partly because they’re exceptional. They don’t point to an epidemic.

You shouldn’t be allowed to leave comments below newspaper articles unless you can do some basic critical thinking. That’s social exclusion I can get behind…



  1. Even more so – You shouldn’t be allowed to publish newspaper articles unless you can do some basic critical thinking… Although, I am sure that the publishers and editors are perfectly able to display critical thinking in their private lives, but are happy to throw this overboard (or use it maliciously) in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator – the proverbial Man in the Street…


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