health

'Germanwings is an unthinkable tragedy. But depression does not make people dangerous.'

Speculation about the mental health of the man who crashed Germanwings flight 9525 mustn’t taint the way we see those living with depression.

Trigger warning: This post deals with issues of self-harm, depression and suicide and some readers may find it triggering.

Mental illness happens to people who are living ordinary, good lives, just like my family and me when I first became ill at the age of 16.

Without warning, I woke up one day with a firm belief that I was sapping oxygen from the world and would be better off dead. At first I thought everyone had similar experiences, but by the time I turned 19, life had become a kind of black horror when awake and back-to-back nightmares when asleep. There was no reprieve.

Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot responsible for the Germanwings tragedy, is reported to have been suffering from depression.

Depression is a barren well, deep and dark, and I was alone at the bottom of it and there was no light from the top so I couldn’t see beyond my own suffering. After weeks, months, years in the well, I lost even the basest urges of life: hunger, thirst, sleep, libido, hygiene, health, social contact, order. Time stretched as a desert does – distant, uncharted, wide and flat as ice. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I couldn’t even read a magazine or watch TV. My brain was like a stopped clock. I walked around with a grief-like ache in my chest as though all my loved ones had died at once.

What can we learn from the Germanwings tragedy, where the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz was reported to have been suffering from depression? First, though depressive symptoms may have made up part of Lubitz’s mental state at the time, depression (or any other kind of mental illness) is not solely to blame. There is no established link between depression and violence towards others. People with depression do not pose a danger to others as a result of their illness.

Second, mental health and the treatment of mental health problems matter for all of us. Thanks to SANE Australia, beyondblue, headspace and others, we are getting better at providing accessible information and education about mental health and mental illness. We need to start the discussion early – in high schools – because the majority of psychological difficulties begins between the ages of 15 and 25.

As they did in my story.

On living with depression: “This is what depression feels like. (From someone who’s lived it.”

It can take months or even years to learn to live well with any kind of illness. This is particularly true for mental illness because it affects many of the functions of brain/mind that we often take for granted: thinking and reasoning and mood, sleep, appetite, pleasure and pain and belief and behaviour. In partnership with my psychologist and GP, I learned to accept that I’d continue to lurch from crisis to crisis unless I (a) understood the illness wasn’t going to go away of its own accord and (b) began to take primary responsibility for its management. This meant taking medication every day as prescribed, having a crisis plan, seeking help early, and slowly, slowly putting my adult life back together.

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Whether this man suffered from depression or not, we can’t let this story colour our view of mental illness.

Many of us with long-term illness read books about the lived experience of similar illness to know that we are not so alone and to learn from others’ journeys towards wellness. When I was hospital, other patients and I talked about how much it mattered if the professionals treating us could see beyond our symptoms – could see that the illness was part but not the whole of who we were. And how important it was if they helped us keep alive a sense of hope that we could get better. So I set out to write Madness from the patient’s perspective, to shed some clear light on these kinds of experiences so that people can see and hopefully understand them from the inside.

Kate’s book is written from the patient’s perspective.

Because the symptoms of mental illness are not visible, sufferers are often wrongly cast as not trying hard enough, as lazy, frustrating, difficult or ungrateful. This certainly has something to do with the stigma surrounding mental illness. But depression is no more a sign of personal weakness than the development of leukaemia is a sign of personal weakness. Suicide itself is debated as either a brave option or a cowardly option. It is neither. Suicide has nothing to do with either bravery or cowardice. It is the tragic, potentially preventable result of a disease of the brain and mind.

Keep reading: What if we could eliminate suicide. Entirely?

150 people died when Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed.

In Australia, suicide is currently the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 24. Access to treatment and support for young people is improving but we need broader mental health education for students, parents and other family members and friends, with the opportunity for discussion, for addressing stigma and debunking myths and for offering hope that people diagnosed with a mental illness can get better.

Dr Kate Richards

For the families, friends and carers of people with mental illness it is particularly hard because the illness can take away our ability to know that we are loved, and we often find it hard to love back in conventional ways. The illness isn’t all of who we are, but without a correct diagnosis and the right treatment, the symptoms of the illness can become all that people see of us.

On Andreas Lubitz: Germanwings co-pilot had ‘health problems and nightmares’, says ex-girlfriend.

Along with the right medication, sustained healing happens when patients and their families are empowered to be active members of treatment teams. For us, the people living with long-term mental illness, it makes a real and lasting difference if we can contribute and be connected to the life around us and if our differences are not automatically judged as ‘bad’ but are understood in the context of our illness and our lives.

This is how we can become useful members of our communities. We can have a sense of purpose. We can live well.

Kate Richards is a Melbourne writer and poet. She has a Medical Degree with Honours, works part-time in clinical research and part-time as an advocate for living well with disability and mental illness. Her award-winning books, Madness: a memoir and Is there no place for me? are published by Penguin Books Australia. Kate was short-listed for a Human Rights Australia Award for Literature in 2014.

If you or someone you love is showing signs of depression or suicidal signs contact lifeline on 131114 or www.lifeline.org.au

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