Does Depression Play a Role in Violent Behavior?

An empty park bench in a snowstormAlthough recent developments in the investigation into the crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 reveal that copilot Andreas Lubitz had recently researched suicide methods and the security of cockpit doors, making it appear as though he deliberately crashed the plane in a suicide attempt, many unanswered questions remain regarding his motivations for bringing down a plane full of passengers. The media have latched onto Lubitz’s history of depression and mental health treatment, painting a grim portrayal of hidden mental health challenges. Some headlines appear to suggest that depression alone can lead a person to behave violently toward others, though this is rarely the case. In the aftermath of a violent tragedy like this one, news headlines frequently point to a perpetrator’s mental health issues, leading the public to believe that conditions like depression and the people who experience them should be feared, when in fact, issues like depression, anxiety, and anger are common, everyday concerns that affect many millions of people around the world and are infrequently associated with extreme violence.

Can Depression Make a Person Homicidal?

Though depression is a leading factor in suicide, affecting about 90% of people who kill themselves, it’s certainly not the only reason people harm themselves. Challenging life circumstances, social rejection, a breakup, poverty, terminal or chronic illness, and a host of other factors can contribute to a person considering or attempting suicide.

Ruth Wyatt, a licensed therapist in New York, told GoodTherapy.org that suicide is a complicated issue. “I think it is important to remember that the vast majority of people being treated with counseling and/or medication for depression or other emotional issues are not suicidal,” she said.

Suicide, though, is not the same as homicide. There is no evidence suggesting that people with depression are more likely than people who do not have depression to harm others. Thus moves to prohibit pilots who have depression from flying or to implement workplace mental health screenings may do nothing to prevent a future catastrophe. Research has consistently shown that people labeled as “mentally ill” are significantly more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. A 2014 study found that a third of people with mental health issues are victimized in any given six-month period.

Mental Health and the Workplace

Lubitz is not the only person to have ever concealed a mental health issue from an employer. Indeed, for many people who struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns, sharing the diagnosis with an employer could feel inappropriate.

One recent study found that nearly 40% of people would not tell their employers about a mental health condition. Half of that group worried that disclosing a mental health condition might negatively impact their careers. These concerns are not necessarily misplaced, either. Sixty percent of respondents said they’d be concerned if a colleague had a mental health issue, with 40% saying they’d be worried that mental health issues could impact workplace safety.

Workers with mental health concerns may face ostracism at work, and in some cases, could even lose their jobs. News of the Germanwings crash has prompted some workplace safety advocates to push for pilots with mental health issues to be ousted from their jobs. Given that about one in four adults experiences a mental health issue each year, making a job contingent upon a mental health screening could leave millions out of work.

Stigma and Treatment

At first glance, mandating mental health screenings for those whose jobs can be used to harm others might seem like a practical measure. After all, mental health services are notoriously difficult to access, and some people with mental health issues are reticent to seek assessment or treatment. Some, like Lubitz, actively conceal their diagnoses, even when they may not be well enough to work.

However, forced screenings and treatment also have the power to raise needless alarm bells about mental health. When a job requires people to undergo mental health screenings, the subtle message may be that those with mental health issues are unqualified. This can increase mental health stigma, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that stigma is the leading barrier to mental health treatment.

A 2014 study of 90,000 people found that 75% of people with mental health issues do not seek treatment. Researchers found that stigma was the most commonly cited reason for not pursuing treatment. Other reasons included shame and embarrassment—two emotions that may be heightened by sensationalized coverage of mental health issues.

Andrew Archer, a licensed clinical social worker in Madison, Wisconsin, worries that excessive reliance on mental health screenings could eventually label everyone as “mentally ill.”

“The ubiquity of screenings, awareness, and treatment for mental health issues will ultimately conclude that we all have a ‘mental illness,’ ” Archer said. “Major life stressors such as the ending of a relationship or role transitions have the potential to push us all over the edge. The impact is moderated by our safety nets—supportive, loving relationships—who won’t let us fall. Suicide is the shrapnel that rips through entire communities. The truth is that mental health providers have become incredibly skillful at predicting when someone will not commit suicide, but are less effective at predicting when someone will.”

Treatment can and does work for many people experiencing mental health conditions, even for people struggling with obstacles that seem insurmountable. If you are experiencing a mental health condition or emotional crisis, consider finding a trained mental health professional who can assist you in your recovery. Additionally, if you are or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or your local law enforcement agency immediately.

References:

  1. Adolescents Cope with Mental Illness Stigmas, Report CWRU Researchers. (2010, May 25). Retrieved from http://blog.case.edu/case-news/2010/05/25/mentalillnessstudy
  2. Brown, Pamela, Smith-Sparker, Laura, and Pleitgen, Frederik. (2015, April 2). Germanwings Crash: Co-pilot researched suicide methods, cockpit doors. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/02/europe/france-germanwings-plane-crash-main/
  3. Greenberg, Gary. (2015, April 2). No, psychiatry could not have prevented the Germanwings Disaster. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/no-psychiatry-could-not-have-prevented-the-germanwings-disaster
  4. Frequently asked questions. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.afsp.org/understanding-suicide/frequently-asked-questions
  5. Mental illness facts and numbers. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf
  6. Shipman, M. (2014, February 25). Study shows mentally ill more likely to be victims, not perpetrators, of violence. Retrieved from https://news.ncsu.edu/2014/02/wms-desmarais-violence2014/
  7. Stigma of mental illness. (2013, October 04). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/data_stats/mental-illness.htm
  8. Stigma of mental illness remains barrier to treatment. (2014, February 26). Retrieved from http://consumer.healthday.com/mental-health-information-25/anxiety-news-33/the-stigma-associated-with-mental-illness-remains-a-key-barrier-to-health-care-685196.html
  9. Violence and mental illness: The facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://promoteacceptance.samhsa.gov/publications/facts.aspx?printid=

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  • 6 comments
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  • Joleen

    Joleen

    April 4th, 2015 at 10:02 AM

    Honestly I have known quite a few people in my life who have been through some sort of depression but never have I found that these were violent people or that they had the tendency to be violent. I think that this was a sad young man who was not only depressed but who also had murderous instincts and he thought that this was the best thing to do- end his life along with those of 150 other people. It just isn’t fair to say that he did this because of depression because I just don’t believe that that could be true.

  • Faye

    Faye

    April 5th, 2015 at 8:20 AM

    To me it would seem more likely that depression could cause you to harm yourself, not others.

  • Grady

    Grady

    April 6th, 2015 at 11:26 AM

    Well, I guess that nothing is out of the question these days. You just never know if the pain that one is experiencing goes so deep that in order to get that release that they need, they not only feel the need to self harm to to do that to others as well. Sad but true I suppose. Anything is possible. It may not be the norm or what we would typically expect but I guess that there are just not always going to be easy answers to everything.

  • patrick

    patrick

    April 7th, 2015 at 1:15 PM

    I guess that there is this feeling that this correlation between anger and depression being more common together because these are the stories that are always showcased and put into the national spotlight.
    The other times people talk about depression and mental health is, well, NEVER. But when something like this tragedy happens, you would think that they have been focusing on it all the time.
    this does the mental health field in general quite the disservice because I think that it truly gives most people the wrong impression of what mental health concerns are and who should be worried.

  • Ronald C.

    Ronald C.

    April 8th, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    Firstly, depression is more of a self-abhorrence than a sadness. There are essentially two forms: Intrinsic Depression… And Extrinsic Depression… With Intrinsic depression the self-abhorrence directs harm towards self. With Extrinsic depression the self-abhorrence directs harm towards others. It is not difficult to see intrinsic and/or extrinsic depression, and it truly is not that difficult to understand… Secondly, suicide is to end ones life… Suicide occurs way before the act of ending the beat of ones heart… Sublimation/Reactive formation is the mask of our ignorance… I can go to any mall; any school; any church; watch any television; and see the masks we wear… Why do we wear the masks…? Why do we not know we are wearing them…? It is a wheel we turn over and over again and act dumb when we know we are going to stop in the same spot…

  • Tatiana

    Tatiana

    May 1st, 2015 at 11:52 PM

    Otto Kernberg has given us valuable insight on the malignant narcissitic personality ,disorders which might better describe what has happened in this case. However in the name of every person with a depression diagnosis in the proper life, I feel I should say that the growing tendency to correlate after this accident depression with aggression if not criminal behaviour, is unfair and lacking of respect.
    Depression is a dimension which according to some psychologists might involve the anima mundis, and in this sense every single being on earth. Our fear towards it might induce us to attribute it to criminals, like it has widely happened with the air crash.
    I think we all need. to get in better terms with the depressed aspects of everyday human experience , inside and outside our subjective worlds.

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