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.
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.