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Lessons from Germanwings crash on mental disability

The pilot who crashed the Germanwings plane hid his mental problems from his employer. But did he need to? Better ways are needed to help the mentally disabled come forward and to treat them.

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    A German flag flutters next to the apartment building of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz in Duesseldorf.
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“If only he had received help from someone.” 

That was a common reaction to the news about the mental problems of Andreas Lubitz, the copilot who flew Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps on March 24, killing himself and 149 others.

As often happens after a mass killing, questions are raised about how to better spot and treat those with mental illness and whether organizations such as airlines should conduct psychological tests. 

Such questions are often unfair to the vast majority of those who are mentally disabled yet do not act out violently. Yet as President Obama said after the 2012 schools killings by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., it’s time to “[bring] mental illness out of the shadows.”

Mr. Lubitz’s motive for his apparent suicide crash may never be known. But evidence suggests he hid some of his problems from his employer, at least on the day of his flight, suggesting a reluctance to admit his mental woes out of fear of not being able to fly. 

Many airlines are now making reforms, such as requiring two people in the cockpit at all times. But a wider discussion is needed about compassionate ways to deal with those who exhibit mental conditions as a way to remove the stigma.

Improvements are certainly necessary in public mental-health systems. But society in general must learn how not to isolate or place limits on those with psychological issues. In 2010, for example, aviation agencies in Europe and the United States loosened rules for pilots who seek treatment for depression as a way to encourage them to come forward.

One example of a better way was highlighted just two weeks before the crash. A pioneer in mental health, Jean Vanier, was honored with this year’s Templeton Prize, which in the past has been awarded to people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

Four decades ago, Mr. Vanier, a Canadian Christian and philosopher, began to set up homes in which people with mental disabilities could live alongside others in mutual dependence and support. Today, more than 147 of his communities – called L’Arche, or French for both “ark” and “bridge” – are operating  in 35 countries.

In these close-knit communities, says Vanier, “People who came to do good discover that the people they came to help are doing them good.” The “assistants” at L’Arche are trained not to treat symptoms or to see their housemates as fragile people needing help but to learn from those they serve with a great deal of vulnerability. 

“Wounded people ... ask for only one thing: a heart that loves and commits itself to them, a heart full of hope,” he says.

He likens his work to that of Jesus, who listened to the weak and loved unconditionally. All people are “created in God’s image and likeness and are therefore deserving of love, respect, and support with no exceptions,” he says.

In a recent lecture, Vanier said, “We have universities; we have schools of technology. But where are the schools for love? Who will teach us to love? Who will help us to come out from the frontiers that we lock ourselves behind?”

The measure of a society is how it treats its weakest, he says. If people who are mentally impaired are given consistent love for who they are, they will become teachers to the strong.

They also might not act out in violence or hide their problems. If only that German pilot had received such help from someone.

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