Andreas Lubitz and mental illness

In the wake of the horrific crash of the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 which killed 150 people on 24 March there has been mounting speculation and anger about the mental state of the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, who was responsible for this act of mass murder.  The more that is discovered about him, the more it becomes clear that here was a very trouble young man with a history of depression, and who, it now seems, was treated for ‘suicidal tendencies’ prior to him becoming an airline pilot.  Inevitably, perhaps, there has been a frenzy of media hysteria, with the finger pointing increasingly at the airline itself: ‘Why was he allowed to fly?’ basically sums up the media’s take on this.

More worryingly, perhaps, the crash, or rather, its circumstances, seems to have exposed widespread ignorance, especially in the media, about the nature of mental illness in general, and depression in particular.  There are reports of airline pilots informing passengers before they take off that they are happily married with families and therefore, by implication, they are psychologically stable and well. 

I think the key point to address here is that Lubitz’s depression did not ’cause’ him to commit mass murder.  Lots of people are depressed, and quite a few have suicidal thoughts; this does not mean they are out to kill other people.  In fact, anyone contemplating suicide is far less likely to be thinking of killing others.  Interestingly, some psychoanalysts would argue that the reason they are thinking about harming or killing themselves in because they have essentially turned aggressive and murderous thoughts inwards. 

Of course, with regards to trying to understand Lubitz’s motivation for what he did, it’s probably way too early to tell and the chances are we will never know.  However, I think it is important to point out that depression and suicidal thoughts are symptomatic of something else – and in order to explore what that something else is it is necessary to probe into the person’s history.  In other words, Lubitz’s depression and suicidal thinking were signs of some underlying disturbance in his psyche. 

Lacanian analysts talk about clinical structures rather than specific symptoms such as depression, anxiety, suicidal thinking, etc.  In fact, the term ‘symptom’ has a rather different meaning in Lacanian analysis than it has in psychiatry or clinical psychology.  For Lacanians, there are three basic structures: psychosis, neurosis and perversion.  This is not the place to go into the theory behind these structures, but essentially they are rooted in the individual’s early history, and particularly in their relationship with their mother and father – or those individuals who fulfil the maternal and paternal functions.  Key questions that need to be asked in terms of these relationships include: how close was the young child to their mother?  What role, if any, did the father play in the life of the child, especially in terms of helping them separate from their mother?  What role did the child’s parents play in helping them work through the traumas of early life?

In view of the catastrophic, and murderous, nature of Lubitz’s behaviour, now might not seem to be the right time to start probing into his early childhood relations.  However, unless we do this, we will never stand a chance of understanding what lay behind those tragic last few minutes of Flight 4U9525.