Note: If you are struggling with thoughts of depression or suicide, please refer to the resources at the end of the post.
Four weeks ago tomorrow, a Germanwings A320 crashed in the French Alps resulting in the deaths of all 150 individuals on board. I will not recount the details here, but investigators who were able to reconstruct the events leading up to the crash found evidence from cockpit records that the first officer intentionally crashed the plane. This post highlights three issues related to the crash: the extreme rarity of all airline disasters, let alone those caused by deliberate pilot action; risks associated with the Werther effect; and government and airline regulations regarding pilots’ mental health issues.
From 1976 to 2013, there were only eight commercial aircraft accidents attributed to pilot suicide by the Aviation Safety Network. Out of millions of pilots, over one billion commercial flights, and many billions of passengers (counting repeats, obviously) that is a vanishingly small rate. An FAA review of aircraft-assisted pilot suicides in the US identified eight such events between 2003 and 2012, al limited to general aviation (i.e. non-commercial). This is a decrease by half from the previous review covering the decade before. Not only is pilot suicide incredibly rare, it is also becoming less frequent.
If this crash makes you more likely to drive instead of fly, you will be putting yourself at much greater risk. When airline traffic decreased by about 15-20 percent following the events of September 11, 2001, Gerd Gigerenzer estimated that fatal car crashes went up by about 10 percent (due to excess road miles driven), accounting for about 350 additional deaths.
In addition to a disproportionate fear response, widespread reporting of suicides can also inspire copycat behavior. This phenomenon is known as the Werther effect, named for the title character in Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther which was blamed for a rash of suicides amongst young males across Europe in the 1770s. This copycat behavior was popularized in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence and based on earlier research by David Phillips. In a 1980 paper, Phillips found that
After publicized murder—suicide stories there is an increase in noncommercial plane crashes and an increase in airline crashes. This increase in crashes persists for approximately nine days, and then the level of crashes returns to normal.
The paper is gated, but some figures from it can be found here. Evidence for the Werther effect implies that the media should be very careful with how they present stories of suicide. This piece by Matt Haig does a very good job of discussing the Germanwings incident and can be summarized by its title and opening blurb:
I’ve suffered from depression. The only life I’ve ever considered taking is my own. For 15 years I was depressive on and off, and the ignorant speculation about Andreas Lubitz’s mental health strikes me as being harmful.
Although the ultimate responsibility for safety lies with pilots, airlines and government agencies also have a responsibility to passengers to ensure that potentially suicidal pilots receive treatment and do not put others at risk. In the US, the FAA takes this duty very seriously. As one of my flight instructors said, “The FAA doesn’t care about you, they care about the people you might endanger.” In the 2003 report mentioned above, the authors note:
All pilots involved in these aircraft-assisted suicides were male, with a median age of 46 years. The pilot was the sole occupant in 7 of the 8 aircraft that were intentionally crashed. Four of the 8 pilots were positive for ethanol, and 2 of the 8 were positive for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.
Unfortunately demographics of professional pilots overlap considerably with demographics most likely to commit suicide.
Current FAA aeromedical regulations require that individuals on one of four approved SSRIs undergo additional screening before before receiving their aviation medical certificate. Pilots with a diagnosed mental illness must also see an approved medical examiner every six months for a neurological screener. Airlines also typically require an annual MMPI screening for pilots. (Note that these regulations do not apply in Europe, and I am unfamiliar with the process there.) While this process is admirable in its emphasis on passenger safety, the increased burden on pilots is enough to persuade some to conceal their illness from the FAA, or worse, forego formal treatment altogether (self-medicating with other substances is all too common). The aviation industry has a long way to go in making mental health issues more open for discussion, as does much of society.
What can be done to preserve pilot and passenger safety? If you are a potential passenger, do not switch to driving when you hear about airline accidents. If you comment on these issues on social media, avoid glamorizing suicide. If you are a pilot or in the aviation community, be aware of FAA regulations, do not fly if you are in a mentally unsound state, and be willingly to openly discuss these issues. Finally, if you are experiencing mental health issues reach out to someone around you.
In the US:
- Mental Health America has community support groups around the country. Their toll free number is (800) 969-6642.
- Mental Health First Aid offers instruction in responding to mental health crises.
- The FAA aeromedical office can be reached at (405) 954-4821.
- For software developers, Open Sourcing Mental Illness is an effort by Ed Finkler to encourage wider discussion of mental health issues in our community. It is supported by EngineYard’s Prompt campaign. Ed has some great videos here.
In the UK (from the BBC article above):
- Rethink Mental Illness has more than 200 mental health services and 150 support groups across England. Its number is 0300 5000 927.
- Samaritans provides 24-hour emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or thoughts of suicide. Its number is 08457 90 90 90.
- Papyrus works with young people to prevent suicide. Its helpline number is 0800 068 4141
- You can find a list of suicide prevention hotlines by country here.