Coverage of the A320 crash: mental health in the media

– Amy Stone, Administrator at the University of Sheffield and member of the Medical Humanities Sheffield Student Social Group

I love to hate some sections of the press as much as anyone – but can we blame them for saying what so many people think?

The Germanwings A320 crash of 24th March 2015 was a terrifying, tragic incident that sent shockwaves reverberating around the world. 150 people died, including 16 school children and two babies. Over coming days and weeks, as the authorities investigated the cause of the crash, the world’s media filled its 24-hour rolling coverage with conjecture, speculation and slow drip-feeding of facts.

As the facts emerged, the press quickly jumped to its own conclusions, provoked knee-jerk reactions and quick condemnations. We should be used to this, of course. It’s a necessity of online news coverage that never sleeps and TV channels that need to fill every second.

Think of the coverage of the Costa Concorida sinking, the Charlie Hebdo shootings, or even the current UK Election – whether it’s a tragic accident, a terrorist attack or a political event, you can bank on superfluous speculation in the coverage. At the time of writing (1 April 2015) the latest in the A320 coverage was unverified mobile phone footage which has so far been handed to the media, but not to the authorities. Sometimes this conjecture is helpful and sometimes, it is deeply unhelpful. As soon as speculation about mental health comes in to the picture, the rhetoric suddenly spirals.

As details emerged from the plane’s salvaged Black Box recorder, we learned that the most likely explanation for the cause of the crash was the deliberate actions of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz. Cue headlines:

‘MADMAN IN COCKPIT’ – The Sun, page 1, 27 March 2015

‘KILLER PILOT SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION’ – Daily Mirror, page 1, 27 March 2015

‘WHY ON EARTH WAS HE ALLOWED TO FLY?’ – Daily Mail. page 1, 27 March 2015

‘Death crash pilot was depressed and ripped up his sick note’ – Daily Express, page 1, 28 March 2015

‘A picture emerges of a man disturbed and ill. Yet allowed to fly’ – The Guardian, page 1, 28 March 2015

The tone of headlines such as these prompted leading mental health charities to issue the following joint statement:

“The terrible loss of life in the Germanwings plane crash is tragic, and we send our deepest sympathies to the families. Whilst the full facts are still emerging, there has been widespread media reporting speculating about the link with the pilot’s history of depression, which has been overly simplistic.

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.”

Sue Baker, Director, Time to Change
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive, Mind
Mark Winstanley, Chief Executive, Rethink Mental Illness

Some quarters of the media then sought to redress the balance. The Observer interviewed Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who warned against knee-jerk reactions that will stigmatise people with depression. Former Head of Communications for Tony Blair Alistair Campbell, an ambassador for Mind, asked ‘Would We Be ‘Blaming’ Cancer for the Deaths of Those People Who Perished in the Alps?’ in The Huffington Post UK.

The Daily Mail provoked a backlash on social media, centring on its insinuation that people with depression can’t be trusted to be competent:

I regularly air my views on Twitter about lots of things. I have also had mental health problems, including depression, for years. But I didn’t join in the tweetdemnation. Why? Yes, the media’s portrayal of mental health is often dire and this particular story is no exception. I didn’t join in, because that would mean ‘coming out’ as someone with depression. Why is that scary? Let’s see.

Katie Hopkins currently makes a living out of being objectionable, so I wasn’t surprised by her Twitter tirade on the matter, which was reported by The Huffington Post UK, through which she secured her place at the centre of yet another controversial Twitterstorm.

However, what stops me being upfront about mental health is that these tweets went down pretty well with a lot of people, gaining thousands of favourites and retweets in very little time. What is scary to someone like me, who (until now) hasn’t gone ‘public’ about their mental health, isn’t the sensational headlines or the discriminatory focus of the media, it’s the fact that the media is sadly reflecting firmly held beliefs of much of our society. And it’s not just the UK – there were similar headlines in many languages around the world. The distrust, suspicion, fear, disgust that mental health problems can provoke in otherwise intelligent and reasonable people is really quite alarming. Is it any wonder that the headlines were as they were?

If you can tap in to such a rich, seamy vein of prejudice (especially as it’s one that appears to be acceptable in polite society) and hit that nerve of recognition in order to sell your wares, then you will. The Daily Mail et al were just saying what many of us would be thinking anyway. The uncomfortable truth is that, in spite of the progress that has been made thanks to the tireless efforts of charities like Mind, Rethink, Time to Change and their ambassadors, society’s instinctive reaction to mental health is still distinctly unhealthy.

Okay, so we’re not all Katie Hopkins – but would how would you regard a candidate who disclosed depression on their CV, or at interview? Would you want a friend to babysit for your kids if they told you they were on medication for bipolar disorder? How about dating – would you go on a second date with someone who told you about their schizoaffective disorder over that first drink? If you’d think twice about any of those scenarios, you’re in the majority. And that’s the reason why I didn’t join in and snipe at the Daily Mail on Twitter using my own condition, although now I wish I’d had the courage to do so.

The media need to report on mental health responsibly and they have a long way to go. But then, so does their coverage of race, religion, politics, war, science, history, the human body, sex and death. In short, pretty much everything. How do we make a difference? Stop looking at the sidebar of shame. Stop visiting websites and buying papers that only serve to make you angry. The next time someone at work makes a comment or your ‘friend’ posts something on Facebook that makes you wince, challenge it. I’m ridiculously conflict-averse, so this will be hard for me, but I’m resolving to start – otherwise I relinquish my right to be aggrieved with the toxic attitudes that go unchallenged in our society every day. Join me!


Useful websites:

Time To Change



The facts about violence and mental health