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Opinion: When the race to explain becomes the race to blame

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When tragedy strikes we desperately want to know how did this happen?  And when tragedy involves air travel it disturbs us in a visceral way.

Despite the relative safety of flying by plane, it’s the lack of control that disturbs us most.  Flying is an inherently strange, disconcerting experience. We place our lives in the hands of the pilots – as we do with surgeons – and need to feel we trust them absolutely.

Many of us clench our flingers and shut our eyes as the plane accelerates down the runway then lifts off the ground. Within minutes, we’re trying to breathe slowly while hurtling through the air, thousands of metres above the ground. Then the captain’s voice comes through the cabin, telling us about the weather and expected time of arrival, and there’s something about that slow, reassuring voice that calms us down.  But it’s really only when we finally touch down that the full relief comes.

It’s very easy for us to imagine being on Germanwings Flight 9525.

With appalling tragedies like this we seek reassurance in simple messages.  We try to piece together the reasons behind the seemingly random, horrific event as the media rushes to satisfy our thirst for the latest development.

We’ve all turned the news to see the latest developments over the past week. The media has a vital role to play in finding the truth about important public matters, but sometimes this race to explain becomes a race to blame.

The problem with all this is when we crudely sheet home the issue to mental illness in a way that reinforces stigma.  And all too often, it is one of the most vulnerable groups in society who cop this blame – the one in five of us living with a mental illness.

Emily* worked as a flight attendant.  It was her fear of blame that led her to conceal her mental illness from her Australian employer. She was afraid the stigma surrounding her illness would block any career opportunities and progression.

Her experience of depression included highs and lows which were on the whole controlled by medication but when Emily asked for time off work to look after her mental health she was met with begrudging scorn from her employers, who she said had no idea of what she was going through.

Emily says she felt saddened to see reports pointing to depression as a cause or reason for the Germanwings crash. Even though depression affects everyone differently, stigma doesn’t allow for this.

While the Germanwings pilot seems to have had a diagnosis of depression, this is only one of a whole host of factors which may or may not be related to the events of 24 March 2015. With tragedies such as the Germanwings crash and Flight MH 370 last year, though, we learn that some things are not easily or satisfactorily explained.

Rushing to simply blame a tragedy on mental illness helps no one.  

- Jack Heath, CEO SANE Australia

*name has been changed to preserve anonymity


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