Flight 9525

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Andreas Lubitz
Andreas Lubitz

I’ve now heard three or four theories about why Germanwings Flight 9525 co-pilot Andreas Lubitz might have crashed Flight 9525 into the French Alps.

But none of them adequately explain this young man’s suicide that took 149 other people with him.

He and his girlfriend just broke up. Such rejection can make a person crazy. I gather you can rule out any political motive. You can rule out a religious motive. Lubitz never identified with any radical group.

We know that he was passionate about flying. He worked in a fast food so he could afford to take lessons. He learned to fly gliders before he earned a chance to co-pilot a big passenger airliner.

Yet he had vision problems. Those could well have jeopardized his flying career. Even more than that, Lubitz had been treated for major depression. He tore up prescriptions for anti-depressants.
A psychiatrist had urged him not to fly.

Still, none of this accounts for the deaths of 149 other people. I have noted that after the tragedy, we’ve learned that airlines, in the U.S. and in Europe, don’t always take mental illness in pilots as seriously they could.

For one thing, lots of depressed people have learned to conceal their moods from others. Moreover, prejudice toward the illness is common, no matter where a person lives. Prejudice is just a good way of fostering ignorance.

I know from my research and experience in our own family that the danger people with mental illness pose is not to others but to themselves. In this country, thousands of persons with this diagnosis take their own lives. Rarely do they kill another person.

That takes us back to Lubitz. Of course, the fact that depressed people rarely kill others is no comfort to the family members who lost loved ones in Flight 9525. But you can be sure that like U.S. airlines, European companies henceforth will require at least two persons in the cockpit at all times.

Even as I write a couple of days after the tragedy, I’ve learned that the airlines are reviewing their screening of pilots to make sure that no person with a serious mental illness gets to pilot a big airliner. Somebody with major depression is not likely to be thinking clearly. The person can become delusional. Without an objective reason, he or she can rationalize quitting a job or filing for divorce.

In the days ahead, I’m sure we’ll learn much more about Lubitz and this tragedy. But this needless loss of so many lives can serve as a reminder to all of us who’ve followed the news. There remain too many people who struggle with mental illness and don’t get treatment. Help remains for the asking. And hope for those who suffer.

I don’t claim to have all the answers to the loss of Flight 9525. I’m certain of this. Lubitz tragic act was not the act of a rational person.

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Robin Williams

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Robin Williams
Robin Williams

I met Robin Williams at a black tie affair in New York City celebrating the birthday of Time Inc. chairman and philanthropist Andrew Heiskell.

Williams had performed one of his classic non-stop talkathon comedy acts. The two of us were standing together in the back of a group of tables seating dozens of rich and famous people brought together that special evening.

On stage that moment was none other than Linda Ronstadt. She seemed to be directing her rendition of “My Funny Valentine” to Heiskell seated at the front table. Wiliams turned to me, eyes aglow, grinning ear to ear as if the song were directed to him. When Ronstadt finished, Williams asked my name and where I was from.

Such a familiar guy, so easy to talk to. I felt I had known him a long time.

I recall we chatted briefly about the event and then he left, probably unnoticed in the dimly lighted ballroom. Just then, a staff member of The People for the American Way, sponsor of the event, invited me to dance as Peter Duchin played familiar standards.

This was in 1985, in February. At the hotel breakfast the next morning, former Congressman John Buchanan, chairman of People For The American Way, which Heiskell supported financially, gave journalists awards and a check for writing and broadcasts that promoted civil liberties. My check award for one editorial was $1,000. People For didn’t offer to pay for my tux rental.

Williams missed the awards breakfast. But I always remembered those few personal moments when we chatted. Every time I saw one of his movies or saw him on TV, I felt lucky to have met this incredibly talented man. I had been a fan since my family regularly watched “Mork and Mindy,” his first big break.

Williams’ death by suicide opens yet another door of memories for me, my longtime advocacy for suicide prevention with editorials in The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. I wish I could claim that groups I helped launch had prevented these tragedies in our community. But number of suicides remain about the same, year to year. The best I can do is to hope we’ve raised awareness.

Toward that end, I enlisted Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” to speak to a suicide prevention conference at Indiana Purdue University in Fort Wayne. Wallace spoke movingly of his own struggle with suicidal thoughts after he and CBS News were the target of a lawsuit.

Once at Carroll High School in our county, I joined a group of health students to hear a motivational speaker talk about suicide. His main point was how selfish it is to take your own life, hurting parents and friends beyond measure. I was pretty sure the guy didn’t understand suicide.

I imagine some fans will call Robin Williams’ suicide a selfish act. I don’t think so. Yes, he enjoyed success beyond measure. He had fame and a family that loved him dearly. Yet I imagine that his depression, which he must have been using alcohol and drugs to treat, had become unbearable. His life was such a gift to all of us. Likewise, his death was a tragic loss for all of us.

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Rx for the right doc

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He just writes a syndicated newspaper column.  But this doc raises a critical issue when it comes to treating a mental health problem.

Peter Gott, M.D., isn’t a psychiatrist.  But in a recent column, a reader had been advised by his family doctor to take an antidepressant.  The reader worried about serious side effects.

Yes, Dr. Gott said, these medications, while generally safe,  have side effects, some unpleasant.    But before taking an antidepressant, the he advised the reader to consult a psychiatrist.  Why?  Because that specialist has lots more experience dealing with the side effects of these medications.

Maybe that’s not always the case.  After all, family doctors do regularly prescribe psychotropic medications.   Lots of them.  And people with depression, for example, more likely seek out the family doctor for help first.  So the family doctors aren’t lacking in experience.

There are two problems, though.   One is they don’t have the extensive training in a field that’s highly complex.  More important, they’re often so rushed, they don’t spend enough time with the patient to fully understand a patient’s mental health problems.

Research shows that family doctors miss a diagnosis of mental illness in about half the cases.  And when they get it right, they prescribe the wrong medication.  But the answer isn’t for the family doctor to routinely ship every person who seems depressed off to a psychiatrist.

A better approach comes from the University of Michigan’s Depression Center.  For the past year, the center has been overseeing a pilot program for family doctors in Flint, Michigan.   The program takes as a given the rush the typical general practitioner is to see each patient.  So this pilot program has assigned a nurse specialist to advise the family doctor and follow the patient’s treatment throughout its course.

If there’s a shortcoming to this program in Flint, it’s that so many people still fail to discuss mental health problems with the family doctor.  And they sure don’t want talk to a psychiatrist.   This powerful stigma means lots of people suffer when they could be helped.

But Dr. Gott’s open discussion of mental health is the sort of thing that can overcome the stigma.   Truly, there is help.

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Great therapy on the cheap

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I still get depressed.

Not every day.  Not every week.  Not even every month.

In fact, I haven’t visited a therapist in ages.  I don’t take anti-depressants.

But I’ve found the secret to beating depression.   Cheaper than pills.  Lots cheaper than a trip to the therapist.

I jog.  About four days a week, starting out about 7 a.m. I head for our nearby part and cover a little more than four miles.  When I run out of breath, I walk.  And you know what?  When I get back home, any worry, any inkling of depression has melted away.

I was reminded of how I handle depression when I saw the recent New York Times article titled, “Getting mental health care when money is tight.”

Given the current economic climate,  the piece was particularly addressed to persons who had lost their job or feared losing their job.

But the tips could very well help anybody struggling with occasional depression or anxiety.  Even if you’re depression is major, simple things like exercising or finding a support group can help get you moving toward professional help.

Most members of the clergy have been trained to listen to troubled souls.  Pastors and rabbis should spot major problems and connect you with the right professional.

You can talk with your family doctor.  The caveat here is that many medical doctors aren’t very good at diagnosing a mental illness.  Nevertheless, a conversation might well open the door.

If cost truly is an issue, you should know that most people who don’t get help for a mental health problem avoid it because of what they expect to be the cost.  Until recently, health insurance hasn’t been very good about covering such problems.

I should also mention that most communities have agencies, such as Mental Health America and a community mental health center, that can direct you to help – often at minimal cost or even no cost.

Another way to make the connection is by calling the national suicide prevention hotline.  Most of their calls aren’t from persons threatening suicide.  And the persons answering the calls are trained to direct you to somebody who can help.

That number is 1-800-273-TALK.

Through the years, jogging has spared me much heartache.   Meantime, on those many outings, I’ve solved problems, planned books and kept myself in excellent health for a person in his 70s.

You might say I’m a believer.

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