Columns

Khleif ’15: Depression’s public persona

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Last week was a difficult one for Brown. We lost a member of our community in a rare campus-wide tragedy. I did not know Hyoun Ju Sohn GS, and so I mourn for his loved ones: friends, students and teachers on campus. I hope he has found peace; I hope those affected by his death also find it.

This tragedy is only one of a number that have been occupying the mental space of Brown students. A different death was spoken about in almost every class I had last week, and the television at the Brown Bookstore seemed to cover it 24/7.

On March 24, Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed into the French Alps. All 150 passengers and all crew members on board were killed. It was determined that Andreas Lubitz, the flight’s co-pilot, took his own life.

Suicide: a word that has been ascribed to the end of both Sohn’s and Lubitz’s lives. In one classification, a clinical link joins together both men, making them one and the same. And this is unacceptable.

Media outlets have been reporting that Lubitz had severe depression and was deemed unfit to fly by his doctor. According to news articles, Lubitz hid this from his superiors as he premeditated to crash the flight originally set to land in Dusseldorf, Germany by researching suicide methods, cockpit doors and aircraft security measures. Headlines read “Lufthansa says Germanwings co-pilot reported depression” and “Germanwings co-pilot had previous episode of severe depression.”

This results in something dangerous: the conflation of depression and violence, and of mental illness and violence. It stigmatizes something that many non-violent people deal with every day.

Continuously perpetuated by the media, which focuses on reporting rare tragedies involving those with depression instead of the millions of successful individuals who seek help and get better every day, a common misconception exists among the general population that the unhappy and the depressed are dangerous individuals, and that they are unpredictable and unsocial. As such, they are thought to have violent tendencies that threaten others. This is untrue.

Approximately 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression, according to the World Health Organization. And the contribution of people with depression to overall rates of violence is extremely small. “Research has shown that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. In fact, “normal” people are much more likely to commit a crime and people with mental illnesses are much more likely to be the targets of these crimes.

In one of the most prominent articles on such an issue, “Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health,” Shelley Taylor of University of California, Los Angeles and Jonathon Brown of Southern Methodist University note that most people tend to be “very cognizant of their strengths and assets and considerably less aware of their weaknesses and faults.” For example, most individuals believe they are better drivers than the average person even though “it is logically impossible for most people to be better than the average driver,” Taylor and Brown write.

This skewed positive self-regard provides an illusory and unrealistic viewpoint of the world. These impractical and distorted characteristics are often absent in people with depression, but they are often found in individuals who commit acts of violence toward others. As Erica Goode wrote of those who kill in a Tuesday New York Times article, “Far more common are distortions of personality — excesses of rage, paranoia, grandiosity, thirst for vengeance or pathological narcissism and callousness.”

People with depression tend to have a much more realistic view of themselves and of the world — a phenomenon called “depressive realism.” In a New Yorker article, Maria Konnikova detailed studies in which “those who weren’t depressed reported having significantly more control than they actually had” over their environments, whereas “the depressed participants … were far more accurate in their judgments.”

What Lubitz performed was suicide, but it was also murder. He murdered 150 other people as a result of something far greater and more complex than depression alone. James Knoll, director of forensic psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University, told the New York Times that zeroing “in on depression is a low-yield dead end. There’s something fundamentally different here, aside and apart from the depression, and that’s where we need to look.” If we do not acknowledge this and we continue to write suggestive headlines, we will aid in the belief that suicide equals depression equals violence.

Lubitz did suffer from depression; this is public knowledge. But it is statistically improbable that the depression itself directly caused him to kill a plane full of people. It was likely other factors — perhaps other mental disturbances — that contributed. Headlines and everyday conversation should be reformatted: “Co-pilot crashes plane,” or “150 die under unstable co-pilot,” removing buzzwords such as “suicide” and “depression” altogether. This is not to say that articles should be absent of these words, but that they are better used in an integrated and more explanatory format.

While I do not know whether Sohn suffered from depression, I do know that we are doing his memory and dialogue a great injustice by determining that Lubitz’s actions were a result of depression. We are doing our peers suffering from depression a disservice by stigmatizing depression and consequently making it seem violent. Let us not define both men by their final acts, for they were not the same. Let us not confuse the role depression plays in individual cases or infer causality between depression and violence.

I hope the families of the 150 victims heal, I hope Lubitz’s family finds clarity and I hope those who knew Sohn are able to mourn and remember his life.


Zein Khleif ’15 is concentrating in political psychology. She can be reached at 
zein_khleif@brown.edu.

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