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The bigger tragedy of the Germanwings disaster


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Just as you were about to hand over the appointment letter to a new employee who has passed all the qualifying tests with flying colours, he says ” sir, I just want to disclose that I am  on medication for depression for the past few years”. What will be your reaction? Will you hold back the appointment letter pending further enquiries? Or will you still hand over the appointment letter irrespective of his new revelation?

The Germanwings disaster has grabbed  everyone’s attention. It is a rare event, laden with lots of emotions and very many facets of the disaster continue to be intriguing. The narrative of the disaster  has a common refrain – the co-pilot was suffering from depression and taking medication for the same, he did not disclose this medical condition to the airline authorities, the  weird behaviour of the co-pilot could be attributed to his depression etc.

Depression, the biggest healthcare problem

Thanks to this spectacular nature of Germanwings disaster the mental illness of depression has shot into limelight. According to World Health Organization 350 million people today live with the problem of depression. By 2030 it will become the largest contributor to the global burden of disease. Across the world fewer than half and in some countries fewer than 10% of those affected receive treatments for this medical condition. When people do get treatment, many a time it is inadequate.

World wide a sense of shame is attached to mental illnesses and so many are hesitant to admit that they suffer from a mental illness. Those taking medication for mental illnesses like depression are uncomfortable about disclosing it even to close relatives. The whole world of mental illnesses exist in an atmosphere shrouded in shame and cover-ups. In such an  atmosphere most people will delay going to a doctor for treatment or do not adhere to the whole course of medication. But there  is no doubt that to build a healthy world, it is imperative that more and more people who suffer from depression seek medical help.

Wrong narrative of the tragedy

The narrative of the Germanwings disaster helped highlight the mental illness of depression. But it has also done lots of damage. Instead of highlighting the widespread nature of depression among the whole population, the focus of the narrative was far too much on the individual pilot. More than making the possible inadequacies in the treatment of depression as the villain, depression itself is being painted as the villain. Although the co-pilot was some one who was aware of his illness and was taking medication for the same, the focus is on the point that he did not disclose his medical condition to his employers. There are few observers who are now talking about psychometric tests that corporates should use to identify those suffering from depression. No discussion is happening as to what corporates should do when they come across employees suffering from depression.

In this atmosphere of vilification about depression, those suffering from this illness will be looked at with suspicion. This in turn will make many who suffer from depression to hide their illness and in many cases delay seeking medical help. Such an environment that encourages hiding one’s  depression problem could spell disaster for the health of the world.

We need a narrative that shows that depression is the most common health problem in the world. Stories of people who are involved in very responsible jobs even though they are under medication for depression should be highlighted. To manage the global health catastrophe emanating from depression we need to have an atmosphere where one could freely discuss about one’s metal illness much like the way we discuss about one’s cholesterol or diabetics problems.

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