Stigma: a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair
To Stigmatise: to treat someone or something unfairly by disapproving of him, her, or it
Definitions according to Cambridge Dictionaries Online (source link)
Speaking as an almost-ex-depressive (as in, I’m three years out of therapy but the bad days never quite go away), stigmata and stereotypes around mental illness do exist, and I’m willing to bet they are one of the most popular reasons people will not seek help for the condition they have. It was certainly one of mine.
Speaking as a psychology grad, if it hits you, it hits you very idiosyncratically which, as with most mental illnesses, makes it hard to pinpoint. I’m not going to go into massive amounts of detail about what depression is; suffice it to say, it can hit anybody and whether or not you get it generally comes down an unlucky hand of cards – I ascribe to the idea that it’s a combination of family history and the way one reacts to the world.
By this time, many of you will have heard of the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 in the French Alps on March 24th, tragically killing everyone aboard. It’s since come out in investigations that the co-pilot sent the plane into its fatal descent deliberately. The latest report from the crash investigation states that the co-pilot had been suffering from depression for some years, and had ‘hid this from his employers.’
And with the stigma that surrounds mental illnesses, I almost don’t blame him.
There are careers that require you to be mental illness free for upwards of two years – mostly in high risk occupations such as careers in the Army and the police force. This is not the result of stigma – this is in the interests of personal safety. Anyone seen the bathroom scene of Full Metal Jacket? In careers where they teach you to fire guns for a living, they don’t want the insurance nightmare. Which to be perfectly fair, is understandable (if annoying to be on the other end of – been there, done that, but that’s a story best left out).
Inferring in part from the report, flying is another one of those careers where they like you to undergo some kind of psychological evaluation before letting you fly a plane. Again, understandable if they’re going to let you control a massive metal tube flying 38,0000 feet in the air with hundreds of people on board, supervised or otherwise. But these tests are far from standardised, and because of this, there are calls now for more rigorous, standardised testing.
Which is utter bollocks.
Talk to anyone who’s done a psychology base degree – hell, even a psychology A-Level (or equivalent). They will tell you that there is no such thing as a reliable standardised test, because there is no such thing as a standard mind. As a point of interest, among the first standardised IQ tests were a set of tests created to “scientifically” prove that some people were of substandard intelligence – as in, specifically designed to make them look stupid (see here and here). In the same way, accidents occur, or crimes are perpetuated, in which a mentally ill person is involved. And suddenly everyone with a diagnosis, or the same symptoms becomes dangerous, or incapable, and generally substandard.
A fantastic post by a writer for the Guardian throws it into sharp perspective. I, personally, haven’t noticed any outright condemnation of people with depression in the media – but we wouldn’t, because wouldn’t that cause a public outcry. What we see instead is a very subtle chain of association. The German newspaper Bild calling it ‘his madness.’ The BBC releasing editorials examining screening process for pilots, asking how pilots with mental illnesses slip the system. Talking about his lifestyle and hobbies as though the condition he had was some dark and twisted secret.
As a species, we are hardwired to put people in boxes – it’s a survival thing. It’s when we begin to put people in the wrong boxes, or assign them boxes they don’t fit in, that problems begin to occur. This stigma around mental health issues makes asking for help something of a minefield, and it shouldn’t be. We should spend less time worrying about screening procedures and more time worrying about supporting these vulnerable people through the bad times and out into the better.
I’ll finish on a word from the mental health charity Mind:
“Clearly assessment of all pilots’ physical and mental health is entirely appropriate – but assumptions about risk shouldn’t be made across the board for people with depression, or any other illness. There will be pilots with experience of depression who have flown safely for decades, and assessments should be made on a case by case basis.
Today’s headlines risk adding to the stigma surrounding mental health problems, which millions of people experience each year, and we would encourage the media to report this issue responsibly.”