In Depth

Germanwings: should pilots with depression be allowed to fly?

Crash of Germanwings flight at the hands of Andreas Lubitz prompts debate on mental health

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Claims that Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had a history of depression and was concealing a recent medical problem has prompted a debate on whether depressed pilots should ever be allowed to fly.

Lubitz, 27, flew the Airbus A320 into the French Alps last week, killing all 150 people on board.Investigators searching his home found that he was hiding an as yet unconfirmed illness from his employers and that doctors had declared him unfit for work. Meanwhile, a German newspaper revealed that he had been treated for depression about six years ago. Several UK newspapers pounced on this, running front-page headlines such as "Madman in cockpit" and "Suicide pilot had a long history of depression: why on earth was he allowed to fly?"Writing for the Daily Mail, Piers Morgan said depressed pilots on medication for mental illness should not be flying passenger planes. "That's not insensitive – it's protecting lives," he said.But others, such as Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, said the media coverage had only served to stigmatise depression further."This is reporting that belongs in the dark ages along with witchcraft," he said. "If Lubitz was struggling with a mental health problem he has that in common with millions of us."Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, insisted that depression should not lead to a lifetime ban for commercial airline pilots, pointing out that there is not normally a link between depression and aggressive suicide.People with acute depression are not allowed to fly, he said. But banning anyone who has ever had a history of depression is "wrong", he told The Observer, "as much as saying that people with a history of broken arms shouldn't be allowed to do something".But Peter McKay at the Daily Mail points out that Lubitz was able to go to work as normal, despite a doctor obviously believing him to be unfit to fly. European Union regulations allow commercial pilots to fly a minimum of four weeks after symptoms of depression have been resolved and, under German law, a doctor is not required to inform the patient's employer about any illness.Lubitz had previously passed all of his medical exams for the airline, including a psychiatric test. "His performance was without any criticism," said Carsten Spohr, the head of Germanwings parent company Lufthansa. "Nothing at all was striking."McKay says: "Mental problems are easier to conceal than physical ailments... The secrecy provided by well-intentioned laws governing medical records is surely a bigger worry than the stigmatisation of depressive suffers."But Libby Purves at The Times says an "exaggerated suspiciousness" of pilots who have sought help for depression could risk driving the illness underground and preventing them from daring to admit it at all.

"Statistics bear out the rarity of this disaster, a bleak comfort at a dreadful time," she says. "To demonise all forms of sensitivity and depression is itself crazy. Many people suffer from sadness, depression or family and romantic failure, yet most of the time we are all safe in one another's hands. We should rejoice in that."

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