Germanwings Flight 9525 shows the limits of predicting human violence

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

A colleague of mine, an obstetrician-gynecologist, was doing a lot of airplane travel this winter. It got him thinking about the pressure he might feel before entering the operating room. He remarked in February, “Every time I get on a plane, I think, in surgery I have one life in my hands. These pilots are responsible for hundreds!

The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps on March 24, 2015 brought this sentiment home in ways my colleague and I never could have predicted. And as information emerges about copilot Andreas Lubitz, the man who apparently brought down the plane in an act of suicide and murder, many observers are now thinking about how to prevent such tragedies.

Last week, I had the chance to talk to Robert Siegel of NPR’s All Things Considered about the opaqueness of mental illness. We talked about how difficult it is to know when a person is struggling with private psychological and emotional pain that might lead to dangerous or destructive behavior.

We all wish — as in the 1956 science fiction story, “Minority Report,” by Phillip K. Dick (turned into the 2002 movie by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Scott Frank) — that we could somehow get behind that opacity to predict future crimes and violence and prevent bad things from happening.

All of us tend to keep our thoughts, especially our most disturbing ones, to ourselves. Even when encouraged to speak those thoughts aloud — to a mental health professional, for example — it is very difficult to do so. We may be ashamed. Or we may simply fear being misunderstood.

If an individual tells a mental health professional, “Help me, I’m planning to kill someone,” the clinician can act protectively. If a person chooses to keep the professional in the dark, however, he or she is going to stay right there, in the dark.

There are no “tools” to predict events like suicide that occur relatively infrequently. Murder-suicide is even rarer, while the number of deaths in the Germanwings suicide crash makes it an unprecedented event.

Nonetheless, specific assessments do help clinicians reduce risk. They can look for factors that make a person more likely to cause harm, such as low mood, psychotic thinking, a life stress or loss of social support. By targeting such problems for treatment, the calamities we fear become less likely.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there will likely be calls for increased scrutiny of pilots. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to the unintended and undesirable consequence that pilots will become even more wary of seeking help. The Germanwings pilot was seeking help which did not prevent him from carrying out a violent act. But policies that cause pilots with psychiatric disorders to avoid treatment and drive them “underground” will likely do more harm than good.

To honor the lives lost will require policies that protect the public while not being punitive to pilots. We will never walk that line perfectly, but if both values are held dear, it will be the best way to give pilots relief and make all of us safer.

Related Information: Understanding Depression

Comments:

  1. Savasaya

    From the news reports it did seem that they knew he was a risk but didn’t take it seriously. Starting from the time he was in pilot training and had to leave due to depression, then he was on medication for depression and regularly seeing a dr for it who deemed him not well to pilot a plane. Perhaps since his condition was known before he was even hired, they should have required him to see a company appointed dr who could report back if they felt he needed to stop flying.

  2. faizan alam

    Very nice article thanks for sharing this. how can i follow u?

  3. Faewyn Goyen

    If you look at the pilots photo his madness is VERY clear for all to see if they actually bother to really look. An aware dog train to sit at the foot of emotionally disturbed persons would have easily and cost effectively identified the pilot as not being in a fit state to fly. Cheaper that drug and alcohol testing as well.

  4. Ola

    My heart goes out to the relatives of the loved ones lost in this Germanwings airline murder-suicide disaster. Maybe a future solution to this kind of unprecedented event is to have periodic mental health screenings of all airline pilots in place. In addition, people should endeavor to talk more to one another and kind of be our “brothers keepers”, which is hard in our fast paced modern day living but could go a long way in airing and possibly terminating dangerous thought processes in people. Spouses and partners help each other (sometimes) in this regard. But if one is alone or lonely, single, unmarried, or introverted or a recluse those thoughts may go on unchecked leading to devastating consequences like thoughts telling one to kill oneself along with over a hundred more innocent human beings. I commiserate with the relatives of the victims. Very sad indeed.

  5. Anne

    Concerns about the paradoxical effects of psychotropics need to be discussed with patients and in public education . Symptoms such as lack of sleep,hypomanic behavior and increasing hopelessness are not uncommon on antidepressants and antipsychotics.Special vigilance is required when the patient works in a position of trust with public, eg carrying guns, driving transport .

  6. William.R.Corcoran, PhD, PE

    It is too early to be definite about fitness for duty and trustworthiness.

    There are many tools that could help.

    These include:
    one-to-one psychological screening
    psychological screening by test
    mandatory reporting by healthcare providers
    continuous behavior observation programs
    computer analysis of social media participation
    personal pre-trip interviews

  7. richard

    I’ll never understand how anybody can take lifes of innocent people, but our leaders do it everyday. I can only think this person felt hopeless and in soom way felt violated. I’ve always said you can screw with most of the people most of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. So if someones lost trust, where will the signal come from?
    I would like to express my sorrow to the families and friends of those that lost on that horrible day!

  8. Venkat Warren

    Great article BUT the German Airline officials missed or ignored ( worse!) many cues from this young immature very depressed pilot. The Airline has a moral and social obligation to protect the passengers at all times . After all, the public gets on a plane assuming that that are safe from deliberate acts of violence however unpredictable the acts may be. Knowingly ignoring the desperate pleas of a pilot for help and allowing to fly their plane to harms way is unconscionable . Venkat Warren.

    • Faewyn Goyen

      You are spot on in your assessment. What has become really wrong with today’s world is that people and organisations at all levels are ignoring their individual and collective duty of care to each other and indeed everything on this planet. Thank you for your perspective.

  9. Mike From Florida

    Maybe the United States should start offering free mental health care for people who are feeling suicidal or homicidal. Sure it would be expensive, but I feel like it would be well worth it. Instead of passing out food stamps to everyone with a cell phone and a bad employment history maybe we could devote some of those funds to helping people who actually want to get help.

  10. fanindra

    Thanks for your information its helpful

  11. Tristan

    He had the sick leave note, but he tore it up and went to pilot despite it. He made a choice.

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