I have never cared enough about Piers Morgan to have a strong opinion, but his Daily Mail story about the Germanwings tragedy indicates that the widely held "dickhead" thesis may have some validity.
He is stoking fear and misconceptions about mental illness.
A co-pilot with a lengthy history of depression, on medication for his illness, and ignoring a specific doctor’s sick note for the very day he was flying, was allowed to command a plane full of 149 people.
For a start, what I believe we know at this point is that the co-pilot had severe depression six years ago. More information will come out, but this alone does not qualify as "a lengthy history of depression" – it is a single episode. As far as we know.
Secondly, do we know if the co-pilot was medicated for depression? Is Piers Morgan saying he should not have been medicated? Or that anyone with any history of depression, on anti-depressants or not, represents a clear risk to the flying public?
Does Morgan know that the doctor's note related to a mental health issue? No one else seems to have this information, including the New York Times whose fact-checking prowess is slightly greater than the former editor of a disgraced tabloid and ex-presenter of a failed talkshow. This is what the NY Times reports:
The Federal Aviation Office of Germany said on Friday that a medical certificate issued to Mr. Lubitz that allowed him to fly noted that he had a medical condition, although it did not specify whether it was related to a psychological issue.
Furthermore, the Times reports that Lubitz had been twice for "diagnostic evaluation" at Dusseldorf University Hospital, in February and then in March, but that the hospital "but denied reports that the co-pilot had been treated for depression"
So what do we actually know?
Lubitz had a depressive episode six years ago for which he sought and received treatment; he has been evaluated twice for conditions other than depression in recent months; he had a doctor's note for the day of the flight, but we do not know whether that related to depression or any other mental health issue.
The most egregious aspect of Morgan's rant, of course, is the lazy, implicit assertion that Lubitz's depression, about which he asserts a great deal more that he could possibly know, somehow explains the heinous act of deliberately downing the plane and killing all onboard.
This is nonsense.
Depression, even severe depression, on its own, does not predict acts of violence, let alone tragedies of this magnitude.
In 2009, researchers at the School of Medicine, University of North Carolina, studied the role of mental illness in violence and reported:
The findings challenge the perception some people have, and which you often see reflected in media coverage, that mental illness alone makes someone more dangerous. Our study shows that this perception is just not correct.
The study finds that "only when a person has both mental illness and substance abuse at the same time does that person’s risk of future violence outweigh anyone else’s.” (There is no evidence, at least to date, to suggest substance abuse in the case of Lubitz).
The study finds divorce a greater predictor of violence than mental illness – and, given that some reports estimate the divorce rates among airlines pilots as high as 75 percent, surely none of us should ever fly again.
After reviewing more than 34,000 cases, the UNC researchers found clear, empirical evidence to reject Piers Morgan-style claims. They concluded their report thus:
As severe mental illness itself was not shown to sequentially precede later violent acts, the findings challenge perceptions that severe mental illness is a foremost cause of violence in society at large. The data shows it is simplistic as well as inaccurate to say the cause of violence among mentally ill individuals is the mental illness itself; instead, the current study finds that mental illness is clearly relevant to violence risk but that its causal roles are complex, indirect, and embedded in a web of other (and arguably more) important individual and situational cofactors to consider.
In simple terms, Lubitz may have suffered from depression when he set the plane to nosedive, but the suggestion of Piers Morgan (and others, sadly) that his depression means we somehow should have seen it coming – and that depressed people present a grave threat to us all – is simplistic, ignorant, rabble-rousing, scare-mongering, bullshit.