So, this may be one of those times when knowing more makes you dumber.
When a guy crashes an airplane into a mountain and kills 150 people, of course there has to be an investigation. The concern, here, is that the investigation will wind up focusing on the makeup of the perpetrator, and will therefore inevitably lead to reforms that only superficially improve the safety of passengers.
Already there are signs of the investigation trending in that direction. There have now been published reports of the co-pilot's possibly psychosomatic vision problems, his history of depression, and treatment records for his depression that note suicidal ideation. Some combination of the need to pin down the circumstances that led to the deaths of 150 people and our inherent curiosity about such an event made these findings and their publication basically inevitable. And, whatever. We were going to learn these things. The information, itself, is mostly harmless.
It's hard to imagine, though, and harder to know, whether this knowledge of the co-pilot's psychological history can be used productively to make mass murder of this or any other kind any more preventable. After all, that would seem to be the most urgent (and perhaps really the only urgent) purpose of an investigation: to learn what systemic vulnerabilities allowed this person, capable of this act, to be in a position to do such a thing, and, subsequently, to institute reforms aimed at closing those vulnerabilities. Was this shit preventable under current protocols, and, if so, why wasn't it prevented, and, if not, how can we make it so?
So, the Germanwings co-pilot allegedly suffered from depression—a study published in Lancet in 2012 estimates that an eye-popping 17 percent of Americans will struggle with clinical depression in their lifetime, and 1.5 percent of the world's population suffers from chronic depression. Generally, we're acquainted with depression enough that most of us probably won't suddenly start giving the side-eye to friends with a Zoloft prescription any time they're behind the wheel. That hasn't stopped at least the media coverage of the crash investigation from focusing in on this guy's history of depression, as if there will be some important truth there to both make sense of what happened and provide signs of a path forward, towards a safer future.
As this scrutinization of the co-pilot and his psychology merges with practical concerns over public safety, there's the looming possibility that depression will increasingly be seen as a disqualifier for passage into certain roles and responsibilities. This isn't an alarmist, preemptive defense of the rights of those with diagnosable mood disorders—already the encroachment upon those rights is happening: the discovery of this person's history of depression almost immediately led to questions of whether this history had been disclosed to Germanwings (his employer), the implication being that this knowledge would have and should have informed their assessments of his worthiness as a pilot. Presumably the thinking goes that disclosure of his struggle with a relatively common mood disorder might have prevented him from flying that plane.
Think about what we're saying, here: we're saying that a person who has sought and undergone treatment for clinical depression can be excluded from performing in a job solely on the basis of diagnosis and treatment. It obviously goes entirely without saying that a person who expresses an interest in killing lots of people in a fiery explosion should be excluded from flying a plane, but clinical depression is not that. That is something else entirely, and nothing in this person's medical history would have indicated any such interest.
If this leads to depression or psychosomatic illness being seen as a red flag in certain careers, or understood as a risk factor for dangerous, outwardly violent behavior under certain conditions, that'll be dumb and unfortunate. Still, even there, it's possible to defend an abundance of caution aimed at protecting people from, you know, murder, even while acknowledging the wrong-headedness of the manifestation of that abundance of caution.
Depression does not turn people into murderous psychos. Severe depression does not turn people into murderous psychos. Chronic depression does not turn people into murderous psychos. It's helpful to articulate those basic points. Sometimes, occasionally, severe depression can make sufferers dangers to themselves. Depression is not the only condition that leads to suicidal ideation, but it also does, and that's a thing to take seriously. It's important to acknowledge, though, that the feelings that accompany depression of the severity to include suicidal ideation wouldn't seem to synch very well with cold-blooded murder.
I will use myself as an example: suicidal ideation has accompanied feelings of extreme shame and despair about my personal failings. It's not a blunt and general hopelessness—the kind of perspective that might lead to a broad devaluing of human life—but rather a lurking feeling that the last and only good thing I can do for the world is remove myself from it. It's not a feeling of resentment or persecution or isolation. It's overwhelming, all-consuming self-hatred, a feeling that is generally incompatible with violence towards others, if for no other reason than there isn't room anywhere in or around my fully occupied mind for any negativity that's pointed outward.
I should be excluded from flying airplanes, because I'm not a pilot, because I'm not especially fond of flying, because I get airsick easily, because I'm a terrible student who would sleep through the portion of pilot school where they talk about landing the plane—none of that stuff would show up on a medical record. What would show up is severe chronic depression with a history of suicidal ideation, but, like my hair color or my choice of shirt, it's completely irrelevant to understanding whether I would pose a risk as a pilot of a commercial aircraft.
Of course, I'm just a single example. But this is sort of the defining nature of depression: it's dangerously and always inward. Depression is low self-esteem exploded into a full worldview, a preoccupation with feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and regret. Maybe someone experiencing these feeling could go out and murder some folks, but these feelings, alone, wouldn't illuminate the likelihood of such an act one way or another.
Now, if the worst thing to come of this horrible act is certain employers screening for depression among their employees and candidates, maybe that's not something to get very wound up about, but then the question becomes this: why? A mandate or expectation that employees will share details of their personal psychology with their employers is an ugly and unfair intrusion, but, more to the point, what does it actually accomplish?
The answer isn't simple. That kind of reform would occupy airlines and agencies, invade the privacy of pilots, and—because this is just what we do now—almost certainly ignite a totally polarized national debate on the implied danger of allowing people with histories of mood disorders to take responsibility for the lives of others. And all along, it will not be moving the needle in the right direction with respect to public safety.
And here's why: making diagnosed clinical depression a disqualifier will, more than anything, incentivize sufferers to eschew treatment. People with dysthymia (chronic depression) commonly suffer through decades of persistent depression before they recognize that it is the result of a disorder, by which time many of them are reluctant to seek treatment for what, to them, seems inextricably linked to their very personality and identity. Attaching to that process actual penalties for accepting treatment aimed at making such a person healthier will change the calculus for career-oriented depressives. Even if depression were a significant risk factor in certain lines of work, screening won't remove the risk—it will remove the very medical treatments that address the risk in the first place. Here's the long and short of it: if depression is a risk factor, you want the diagnosed and treated depressive. The undiagnosed, untreated depressive would, according to the assumption, be the far greater risk.
And that practical concern rests upon the assumption that depression is a risk factor at all, and that assumption relies upon the assumption that depression played a role in what happened with the Germanwings pilot in the moments leading up to the crash, and investigating that possibility distracts from the fact that it was a locked door and a lack of redundant safety measures that allowed the co-pilot to crash the plane. Whether he was treated for depression is totally irrelevant: if he'd passed out, if he'd been hell-bent on martyrdom as part of some ideology, if he panicked and froze, if it was part of some hair-brained hijacking that went to hell, if he'd been an undiagnosed depressive, if he'd been an undiagnosed sociopath (if he actually did this thing on purpose, he was an undiagnosed sociopath)—under any conceivable circumstances, once that door was locked and the pilot was unable to access the cockpit, whatever personal conditions led to that point and then to the plane being flown into a mountain are noise. Fascinating noise, sure, but noise all the same.
The concern I'm trying to articulate is that our knee-jerk response to this, as it too often is, will be to start fearing another group of people about whom we are otherwise fairly ignorant, seeing risk factors and potential villains according to signs and characteristics that don't meaningfully correlate with threats to public safety. We're becoming so fucking fearful. It's our default explanation for bad things: figure out which group the perpetrator belongs to and fear that group. We fear things on spec. We flail around protecting ourselves from threats that simply do not exist. It's worth wondering whether there's ever actual value, beyond curiosity and closure, to rooting around in the psychological makeup of killers. With all the behavioral science stuff and all the morbid curiosity and CSI and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, we haven't made any strides at all towards eliminating murder. Maybe it's only ever been in service of curiosity, of feeding our instinct to fear.
Depression is tough. Confronting it is tough, managing it is tough. It's a disorder, and it's treated with actual medicine. There's already so much misunderstanding about what it is and what it means about those who struggle with it. It's totally appropriate to learn whatever there is to learn about a person who is responsible, one way or another, for the loss of 150 lives. As the investigation continues to take shape, though, there is the risk of misguided "solutions" in the form of knee-jerk reforms that needlessly heap pressure on a group that already deals with enough of that. That risk might be worth a reward in the form of increased public safety, but when enforced stigmatization is the only tangible thing that can come from emphasizing the co-pilot's psychological history, the event will only have distanced us from any genuine or practical understanding. There is no reward there. There is only risk.